Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Sept. 23. {1881}  The new Doctor {Mary Allen} is a sweet looking Quaker woman.  My only fear is, that she will be too mild.

Well, methinks Maria hit that nail on the head.  Allen did not last long at Vassar – she was gone by 1884!

I know little of Dr. Allen.  A snippet from the Vassar Miscellany, Volume XI, Number 1, 1 October 1881, states that Dr. Allen was a graduate of the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia and was a teacher before going into medicine.  She had worked in her own private practice and then taught at the Medical College and worked at the Women’s Hospital in Philadelphia.  Perhaps she was “too mild” to deal with some of the happenings at Vassar, or the students, of the trustees.  Perhaps, like Maria and her friend and the former college physician and teacher at Vassar Alida Avery, she too felt that her salary was too low.  Maria and Avery led the charge at Vassar because even at a women’s college – the women professor and staff were paid less than the men.  Avery finally gave up and left in 1874.  She moved to Colorado and opened her own practice.  She would become one of the wealthiest women in Colorado and remained single for her life.  I have written about her before in a previous blog.

JNLF

 

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

1881, May 6.  Yesterday we went to town see the opening of the Vassar Brothers Home for old men.  I looked at Matthew Vassar (Vassar College’s founder’s nephew) with admiration.  It is a good deal to be successful in getting money, to give it away by tens of thousands is more!  And to see a man upwards of 70 stand up in a crowd and say exactly the right thing and sit down before the audience was tired, is not usual . . . .

Maria Mitchell always says it well.  Matthew Vassar, founder of Vassar College, had originally wanted to establish a hospital in his name.  His nephew, also named Matthew Vassar, was once of several who convinced him to establish a women’s college.  Vassar would still goon to be a generous man in supporting the Poughkeepsie area – I believe a hospital was built – and obviously his nephew continued n in the same tradition as noted by Maria Mitchell here.

This reminds me of Bill Gates and Berkshire Hathaway founder Warren Buffett and many other multi-millionaires and billionaires who have pledged to give away much of their wealth.  There were people in the nineteenth century and earlier, during the Great Depression and later who saw a need and gave willingly.  The MMA was such a recipient in its building of the Vestal Street Observatory in the early 1900s when some monies were given to its building by Andrew Carnegie.  A small new observatory on an isolated island – he knew we were in need and knew it could be something tremendous that contributed to our knowledge and education – and he was right!

Further, Vassar was not looking for accolades as Maria also notes.  Buffett, Carnegie, Gates, they don’t look for accolades and I would assume that all would know what to say and would not continue to speak on and on, nor stand until the audience could no longer clap.  That’s class – for lack of a better word – and reaching out to give to others when you have so much or so much more that you cannot ever use it all.  That is compassion, caring, generosity and kindness.

JNLF  

Miss Mitchell’s Students: Elizabeth Rebecca Coffin

Image courtesy of the Coffin School Trustees

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 fifth, and final in this series, is:

Elizabeth Rebecca Coffin, 1850-1930

Born in Brooklyn, New York to Nantucket Quakers and reared in a Quaker household, Elizabeth or “Lizzie” attended Quaker schools.  She entered Vassar College and enrolled in Maria’s astronomy classes, becoming close to Maria and her father.  Nantucket was not the only connection for these three – they were also distant cousins.  Lizzie was a classmate and became a good friend of Mary Whitney.  When she graduated from Vassar in 1870, she furthered her schooling in the 1870s at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague where she was among the first women to be accepted.  Several tours through Europe with family, tutelage under many fine artists of the nineteenth century, and friendships with the artist Thomas Eakins, William Merritt Chase, and others provided Coffin schooling in the arts.  Through her membership in the Art Students League of New York, the Brooklyn Art Club, and the Brooklyn Art Guild, of which she was president, Lizzie became acquainted with artists from around the world.  Her connections, her schooling, and her talent led to participation in major exhibitions throughout the country.

Lizzie made frequent trips to Nantucket, until she built a house on Lily Street in 1900.  She returned to New York often, but preferred to call Nantucket her home.  Eakins was among many artists who would visit her on Nantucket.  During the extended visits, Lizzie continued to paint but also took on many new activities, particularly in support of the island and its people.  She was active in founding the Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association, as well as the Goldenrod Literary and Debating Society (a group for island girls), the brainchild of Sara Winthrop Smith.  Perhaps because of Lizzie’s friendship with Smith and her close friend Gertrude King (teacher and principal at the Coffin School), and her family ties to the school, she was instrumental in putting the Coffin School back on its feet.  The school had closed in 1898 due to lack of funds and a dwindling student population.  Coffin’s efforts to redevelop the school as a center for manual-training courses in conjunction with the public schools was what helped to revive it.  With the founding of the Coffin School Association and with the help and support of the Coffin School Trustees, Lizzie’s dream was realized and the school reopened in 1903.

Her work on behalf of the school greatly increased its endowment, and she was influential in establishing the home economics program for Nantucket girls.  Lizzie’s Vassar College schoolmate, Ellen Swallow Richards, was a champion of the home economics movement in schools and partially funded the program on Nantucket.  Ironically, although Lizzie continued to paint, she was better known to islanders as a champion of island causes than as an artist.  Today, many of her works are in the collection of the Coffin School Trustees.

JNLF

Miss Mitchell’s Students: Ellen Swallow Richards

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 fourth is:

Ellen Swallow Richards, 1842-1911

Swallow Richards entered Vassar at the age of twenty-six – not uncommon for women attending the first women’s colleges – as a third year.  She graduated in 1870 having only had formal schooling starting at age sixteen.  A student of Maria’s – who recognized her ability and promise for science innovation – Ellen found her calling in chemistry which led her to MIT.  All other schools had denied her entry based on her sex but MIT reluctantly accepted her as a test – to “ascertain women’s ability in the sciences.”  In 1873, she received a Bachelor of Science from MIT and Vassar bestowed a Master of Arts on her at the same time.  Together with her husband, Robert Hallowell Richards, a MIT professor of mining, they used their home as a laboratory for devising home efficiencies.  She would head a lab for women at MIT which focused on studying “sanitary chemistry.”  Her work made her the founder of the home economics movement and during her life she published seventeen books on home economics and sanitation; including the first health food cookbook published in the U.S.  She also organized the first school lunch programs, created exhibits on home economics for several world fairs, and introduced healthy and inexpensive cooking to Boston’s immigrant communities.

 

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Nov 13. {1881}   I observed in the meridian room last night; working with telescopes always cheers me.  Today is fine and I am feeling uncommonly well.  I am hoping that the cramping of my hands means nothing, but it is new to me.  I did not go to Chapel today but worked on a lesson. 

Maria had more than one occasion when she did not go to chapel – I believe I have noted it before.  Not her thing.  She found lots of excuses –better light to sew by in the mornings when chapel occurred – but this is a much better excuse I’d say – lesson prep for her students.  Maria found her religion, her god, in nature.  Her daily nature walks were a reminder to her of the power of nature, the beauty of it, the science of it.  She was very much a scientist of the nineteenth century.

Concerning her notes about her hands, Maria would have health issues that she  battled – and minor mentions are made mainly in the late 1870s and then into the 1880s.  She would ultimately die of “brain disease” that may have been Parkinson’s or something similar given some of her ailments.

The meridian room was a part of the observatory at Vassar where the telescopes (meridian instruments) could be found.  The observatory at Vassar is an impressive building for its architecture alone.  Below is a description of it from the Vassar College Encyclopedia.

In material—brick with stone—as well as in its proportions and design elements—arched first floor windows, brick pilasters at the corners, a central entrance at the second story—Farrar’s building faithfully echoed, in miniature, Renwick’s enormous Main Building. An octagonal center, twenty-six feet in diameter, supported the dome, twenty-seven feet seven inches in diameter. Three two-story wings to the north, east, and south, twenty-one by twenty-eight feet, contained on the second story a “prime vertical room,” a “transit room,” and a “clock and chronograph room”—each named for its instruments and functions. The first stories of the wings, unfinished at first, were nine feet high, but the second story floor of the octagon was four and a half feet above those of the wings. The walls of the octagon were made with solid brick for stability, and the walls of the wings were hollow. The dome was built with ribs of pine resting on a plate of pine and was covered with sheet-tin. Sixteen cast-iron pulleys, nine inches in diameter and running on a track of iron, revolved the ton-and-a-hall dome. 

JNLF

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