Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

{March 1858} I am working to get admitted to see the observatory, but it cannot be done without special permission from the pope, and I don’t like to be “presented.” If I can get permission without the humbug of putting on a black veil and receiving a blessing from Pius, I shall; but I shrink from the formality of presentation. I know thou’d say “Be presented.”

The above is from a letter written by Maria Mitchell to her father, William Mitchell. Never much for pomp – but also raised within the Quaker faith where one of the tenets was that everyone was on equal footing – I can see why Maria balked at having to go through such formalities for Pope Pius but also to gain entry to the Vatican’s observatory. I have written about the fact before that she was the first woman to gain entry and the fact that it took at least a fortnight. Can you believe that? Well, if you lived in that time and earlier, yes you could. But it seems so alien and foreign to us now – though we all know this continues to happen in our world today – for females and males.

JNLF

Maria Mitchell in Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865

March 15, 1858. Today an eclipse of the sun was to come off, and with Mr. B and the Westons I went to the Observatory of the Capitol to look at the phenomenon . . . . The old gent speaks no English, but the bad French of both of us made a language. He had placed three telescopes of ordinary mounting in a terrace which overlooks the Forum, and as it was very cloudy, we looked at the magnificent views of the Alban and Sabine Mts. instead of looking at the Eclipse . . . . A dozen young men suddenly formed into a line and Prof. Calandrelli presented his pupils, who gracefully lifted their caps. They were fine looking fellows of about 16 and they all smiled as they greeted me and were evidently pleased at being noticed . . . .

Maria Mitchell was in Rome in 1858, a part of her European trip that started with her serving as a young woman’s chaperone. When the young woman, Prudence Swift, was called home due to her father’s bankruptcy (thus no more funds for the trip), Maria Mitchell remained and continued to travel. She was the first woman to gain entry to the Vatican Observatory – not even one of her heroines, Mary Somerville, ever gained entry.

JNLF