Miss Mitchell’s Students: Margaretta Palmer

Standing under the canopy of the stars, you can scarcely do a petty deed or think a wicked thought.

Maria Mitchell’s influence reached far and wide and remained strong through many generations of not just her own students but the students of her students.  Her immediate galaxy was of course the women who took her astronomy and mathematics classes at Vassar College.  She instilled in her students a lifelong love of learning and the knowledge that as women, they had the power, strength, and knowledge to be the future of women scientists and educators in the world.  Some would go on to great accomplishments and some would go on to quietly influence other young learners of the world – spreading Maria’s legacy farther afield.

Over the next few blogs, I would like to share with you some of Maria Mitchell’s students.

The third is:

Margaretta Palmer, 1862-1924

A classmate of Antonia Maury’s, Palmer graduated in 1887 and served as Maria Mitchell’s assistant for that first year after graduation.  She had taken several of Maria’s astronomy classes.  In 1889, she was hired by the Yale Observatory to serve as an assistant– mirroring the program her classmate, Maury, was doing at Harvard.  She was among the first group of woman admitted to Yale for graduate school, receiving her Ph.D. in 1894 in mathematics – the first woman to earn a PH.D. in mathematics and the first of seven women to earn Ph.D.’s from Yale.  Her    thesis – a recalculation of her professor Maria Mitchell’s comet of 1847 – was a perfect match for this astronomer and mathematician and likely a nod to her Vassar mentor.  Her focus was in computational astronomy which led her to calculate the orbits of many comets that were previously discovered including several by English astronomer Caroline Herschel who was forced, due to her sex, to give much of the credit for her astronomical work to her astronomer brother, William Herschel.  Palmer worked at Yale for her entire career – weathering many tensions and internal fighting – but was able to publish several articles of her own, as well as numerous other publications that she co-authored.

JNLF

Miss Mitchell’s Students: Antonia Maury

Standing under the canopy of the stars, you can scarcely do a petty deed or think a wicked thought.

Maria Mitchell’s influence reached far and wide and remained strong through many generations of not just her own students but the students of her students.  Her immediate galaxy was of course the women who took her astronomy and mathematics classes at Vassar College.  She instilled in her students a lifelong love of learning and the knowledge that as women, they had the power, strength, and knowledge to be the future of women scientists and educators in the world.  Some would go on to great accomplishments and some would go on to quietly influence other young learners of the world – spreading Maria’s legacy farther afield.

Over the next few blogs, I would like to share with you some of Maria Mitchell’s students.

The second is:

Antonia Maury, 1866-1952

Antonia Maury came from a long line of scientists and teachers, astronomers among them, including Henry Draper, her uncle, who was a pioneer in astronomical photography. She graduated in 1887 having taken eight semesters of astronomy with Maria.  She, like Maria and Mary Whitney, also had an interest in the natural world – birds in particular. Maury would find herself among the first women star catalogers or “computers” at Harvard College Observatory – a program which was funded in part by her aunt, wife of Henry Draper, as a memorial to him.  The group of women were sometimes referred to as “Pickering’s Harem” – the director of the observatory.  The women were paid less than half what the men earned as computers. As a “computer,” Maury devised her own, more defined spectral categories for the stars but her work was not appreciated – Pickering felt it slowed the work of cataloging down and he did not appreciate her independence.  Her work however, many years later, would be noted for its value in cataloging the spectra of stars.  Maury would leave and return to Harvard several times, teaching in schools and lecturing at Cornell in astronomy.  In 1918, she returned to Harvard again, serving as an adjunct professor.

JNLF

Miss Mitchell’s Students: Mary Watson Whitney

Standing under the canopy of the stars, you can scarcely do a petty deed or think a wicked thought.

Maria Mitchell’s influence reached far and wide and remained strong through many generations of not just her own students but the students of her students.  Her immediate galaxy was of course the women who took her astronomy and mathematics classes at Vassar College.  She instilled in her students a lifelong love of learning and the knowledge that as women, they had the power, strength, and knowledge to be the future of women scientists and educators in the world.  Some would go on to great accomplishments and some would go on to quietly influence other young learners of the world – spreading Maria’s legacy farther afield.

Over the next few blogs, I would like to share with you some of Maria Mitchell’s students.

The first is:

Mary Watson Whitney, 1847-1921

The Hexagon: Maria Mitchell’s First Astronomy Class. Mary Whitney seated at center.

Born the month before Maria discovered her comet, Mary Whitney would be in Maria’s first Astronomy class at Vassar.  She would also serve as her former teacher’s assistant and later her replacement when Maria left Vassar in 1888.  Like Maria, Whitney had a love for the natural world and was an excellent mathematician; she grew close to both Maria and William Mitchell.  After leaving Vassar, Whitney taught school, attended – by invitation – mathematics lectures at Harvard as the only woman allowed to do so, and would be named the first president of Vassar’s alumnae group.  Vassar awarded her a master’s degree in 1872.  She travelled to view the eclipses with Maria and when Maria became more frail, returned to Vassar to serve as her assistant.  She accepted a research position at Harvard’s observatory giving it up to return again to Vassar to take Maria’s place where she worked until her retirement in 1915.  Whitney would serve as the Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association’s first president.

JNLF

 

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Sept. 24, 1881.  . . . Mr. I. {van Ingen} thinks that not a person on the Board of Trustees would approve of the clause in Mr. Vassar’s will which objected to women as occupants of chairs.

Just months before, Maria Mitchell had written a letter describing the controversy surrounding the bequest of Matthew Vassar to the college he founded.  The large sum was separated out within his will, including the establishment of department chairs.  The bequest however for this action did not allow for women professors to have a chair.  Quite shocking for a women’s college but then, there were early trustees in the College’s founding who believed that women professors should not exist at Vassar!  Maria would be the first professor Vassar hired – male OR female.

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

May 6, 1878 Between the clouds, Miss Spalding obtained 7 photographs of Mercury on the Sun.  It is a comfort to me to be able to plan and do a new kind of work.  The large telescope worked better than usual, Clark having just been to the Observatory.

Maria Mitchell and her students photographed the Sun on every clear day and as such were able to photograph the transit of Mercury and the rarer transit of Venus – the planet for which Maria had calculated the ephemeris for the US Nautical Almanac for many years.  She was the first woman computer for the Nautical Almanac and likely, the federal government.  In its archive collection, the MMA has several images that Maria and her students completed of transits of the sun, including the one of Venus which was taken by Elizabeth Rebecca Coffin, an artist of some renown and also a child of two Nantucket Quakers.

Apparently, Alvan Clark had recently visited Maria and the Vassar College Observatory and made some adjustments to the telescope.  He was the premier telescope maker in America – and the man who made Maria’s five-inch – monies for it were a gift from the Women of America – a subscription overseen by Elizabeth Peabody.

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Sept. 30.  {1881} Our new Doctor says she has known Professors who are appointed by the Corporation of a Medical College to Lecture to the women, who have complied with the requirements but who have lectured with their backs turned to the women!

I will assume these are male doctors noted above though until quite late, only men lectured to men and women to women though we all need to remember that there were not a large amount of women doctors at this late date in the nineteenth century!  In fact, the first American-born medical doctor, Lydia Folger Fowler, was born on Nantucket and raised, like Maria, in a Quaker family.  She would become a doctor of what is today gynecology and lectured at the medical colleges she taught at but was only allowed to teach physiology to women – the classes were kept separate for “obvious” reasons!  (Read: nineteenth century reasons.)

JNLF

Cider Doughnuts

This is a strange roundabout way for me to thank the Mitchell House intern for all her hard work at the Mitchell House and the MMA for the summer of 2018.  Kelly Bernatzky just entered her senior year at Vassar College this month.  She came to the MMA via the MMA-Vassar College Fellowship that is funded by a Vassar alum and Nantucket resident for many years to help continue to foster the connection between our two organizations – one that we have had since the founding of the MMA in 1902.  Kelly is from western Massachusetts.

During her Mitchell House orientation, as we made our way to several other island historic sites for her to get a better idea in a very short time about what Nantucket and its history entails, we chatted as we walked.  Both about work and Nantucket, but also in a get to know you sort of way.  At some pointed, I professed my undying love for Atkins Cider Donuts.  I graduated from Mt. Holyoke College and any fall meeting or dorm activity or gathering also featured cider donuts and cider.  In fact, parents could order Atkins Exam packages for us during exams – but it was always minus the donuts as they used to only make them in the fall.  Now they make them all the time.  Shipping is a bit cost prohibitive on the donuts but oh are they delicious and to me, none compare.

Well, Kelly’s mother and uncle came for a visit and on a Monday morning in June, and I was presented with two bags of cider donuts.  I was so excited that it was a bit embarrassing.  I am happy to report that I was able to thank the donut carrier in person – and on this blog want to make another thank you!  Yum!

I have already eaten all the donuts, sorry – though I did share with Kelly.  In fact, they sat by my desk all day and I had SERIOUS will power in the fact that I ate only one!  The smell drove me do-nuts!

Thank you, Kelly – not just for the doughnuts – but a fantastic summer!

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Aug. 9, 1888.  My birthday letters were from E.O. Abbott, Lucy Stone, Miss Storer, Elisa Worley, Miss Helen Storke, Dr Avery, Robert Taylor, a card from Phebe’s friend, a gentleman 77 years old. 

I think I am weaned from Vassar and have entered on a little studying. 

Maria Mitchell celebrated her 7oth birthday on August 1, 1888.  Her birthday letters show her wide range of acquaintances and friends – even later in life.  Taylor was then the president of Vassar College, Dr. Alida Avery had been a fellow professor at Vassar – of Hygiene, Physiology, and the resident physician at Vassar – several of the others were her former students and Phebe of course, one of Maria Mitchell’s younger sisters.  Lucy Stone was yes, THE Lucy Stone – as in suffragist, orator, antislavery activist and first woman in Massachusetts to earn a college degree (1847 – the same year Maria discovered her comet).  The note from Stone reads:

. . . Your birthday and mine are here.  Let us congratulate each other and rejoice that we have had long and useful lives.

Stone was just twelve days younger than Maria Mitchell and their paths crossed quite a bit on their work and their pursuits for equality for women through organizations such as the Association for the Advancement of Women and the National Women’s Rights Conventions.

The comment about being “weaned” from Vassar refers to the fact that Maria had left some months before because of failing health.  At the encouragement of her brothers and sisters, she had taken time off but realized her health would not allow her to return.  I think her comment is not unusual for professors for whom the college or university becomes their complete way of life as it had for Maria both living and working on the campus.  It was an adjustment and a life change.  Maria would pass away less than a year later on June 28, 1889.

JNLF 

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

1881. Sunday, June 12. The eclipse at one o’clock this morning was beautiful.  It had rained for a week and cleared off last evening . . . . I got out a little before 1 a.m. and went to bed at 2 {a.m.}.  Roses are plenty.

This was not a solar eclipse as Maria would observe in 1831 (Nantucket at age 12 ½), Burlington, Iowa (1869), or Denver, Colorado (1878), but a lunar eclipse (note the time of day) viewed from the observatory at Vassar.  School was still in session – yes, colleges did not get out in May – and her well-received and highly-anticipated Dome Party for the year would follow just six days later.  This seems to have been a solitary observation – though two of her nieces via her youngest sister, Kate, may have at least been present in the Observatory as they had come a few days before to stay.

What I love even more is her note about the roses being in bloom.  A naturalist as well, Maria’s journals are always at least peppered – if not written to great depth – with notations about things in nature.  And June, is the time for roses!

JNLF

And please do not forget to join us this Wednesday, June 27 from 7-8 PM for a lecture and book signing at the Nantucket Atheneum with David Baron author of American Eclipse – a book in which Maria Mitchell is one of the featured astronomers.  Baron drew on Mitchell’s papers housed here on island at the MMA to research and write his book. 

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

1880, Feb. 16.  I sent a note to Mr. Swan this morning to ask about the power that I may have to vote for school officers and the ask where I must register, what tax I must pay, etc.  I also suggested to Dr. Webster to write to another of our Trustees.  They may rule us out as citizens but we have lived for years within the precincts of some town. . .  It is possible that we must hold real estate in the town, but I know that my Father voted although he did not even pay a poll tax.

Here, Maria is likely referring to a Vassar College trustee and also an attorney, who served as the attorney and legal adviser to Matthew Vassar.  But what is of most interest is that Maria is trying to figure out how she might vote – not for Vassar College officers, but Poughkeepsie school board members.  (Dr. Webster was then Vassar’s resident physician, having replaced Dr. Alida Avery.)  This journal entry followed upon the heels of Maria’s younger sister, Phebe Mitchell Kendall, being voted in as the first woman to serve on the Cambridge Massachusetts School Board along with another woman, Sarah P. Jacobs, in December 1879.  It was the first time that women were allowed to vote for a political office in Cambridge and the two were the first women to hold any office in Cambridge.  In fact, women were allowed to vote for school board members throughout Massachusetts – think about how that came about.  Maria seized on this accomplishment of her sister’s and the fact that women could vote for school boards in Massachusetts, hoping to make some changes in New York – or at least Poughkeepsie.  She also likely felt that this would help to support not just education but girls and women in education and further, women’s higher education i.e. college.

JNLF