Nantucket astronomer Maria Mitchell’s legacy still shines after 200 years
Maria Mitchell would no doubt be surprised at the scope and continuing growth of the nonprofit organization that bears her name. But it’s safe to say she would be pleased to know the Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association is dedicated to promoting the values of learning and enlightenment that she and her family held dear.
August 1, 2018 will mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Maria Mitchell, America’s first female astronomer. Born August 1, 1818 on Nantucket, she earned fame by discovering a comet in 1847 while exploring the night sky from the roof of Nantucket’s Pacific Bank, where her father was cashier. She was the first woman to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and went on to be the first astronomy professor at Vassar College.
The third of 10 children, Maria (pronounced Ma-rye-ah) Mitchell was born into a Quaker family where learning was highly valued. Her father was a teacher and a noted astronomer who held an important role on Nantucket, at that time the whaling capital of the world: He rated the chronometers on which sailors depended to determine their location while at sea. He shared his passion for astronomy with his second daughter, who was a naturalist from an early age and by 14 was trusted to rate ship chronometers herself.
“Her first love, she always said, was mathematics,” says Jascin Leonardo Finger, deputy director and curator of the Mitchell House, Archives and Special Collections for the Maria Mitchell Association. “Her father led her to astronomy.” Maria, Leonardo Finger explains, felt compelled to keep her father company during his nightly sessions peering at the sky through a telescope. “William was observing every night, and she felt badly that he was out there freezing,” she says.
Astronomy was part of a broader interest in the natural world that William and Lydia Mitchell shared with their children, and was very much in keeping with 19th century island life. “Her father was a teacher and took long walks with his students daily,” Leonardo Finger says. “The whole idea of observing nature was very much a Nantucket thing.”
“Comet sweeping” was a common practice in the 1800s, Leonardo Finger notes, but Maria, who was the first librarian at the Nantucket Atheneum and had also run her own school, brought it to another level. Her discovery changed her life and put Nantucket on the map as more than a whaling port.
Her newfound fame led to a job with the American Nautical Almanac, calculating the ephemeris (i.e. position) of Venus. In addition to her election as the first female member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848, she was named the first female member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1850. In 1863, she was offered a position at the newly founded Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, becoming its first professor. She was active in both the anti-slavery movement and the campaign for women’s rights.
Although the Mitchell family were Quakers, “They were unusual Quakers,” says Leonardo Finger, who began volunteering at the Maria Mitchell Association at the age of 12 and later included Maria Mitchell in the thesis that earned her a master’s degree in history. “William loved music and bright colors,” both frowned upon in Quaker society. “One of her brothers was actually kicked out of meeting because he married a non-Quaker.”
Quakers were not supposed to be “prideful,” which explains why Lydia Mitchell apparently felt compelled to hide an article about her husband in a place where she could view it privately. “She pasted it under a ledge in her desk,” says Leonardo Finger, who managed to transcribe the article without removing it from the desk.
The desk is among the artifacts contained in the Maria Mitchell House, one of several sites owned and operated by the Maria Mitchell Association. The organization also runs a summertime aquarium, a newly renovated research center and a natural science museum, along with two observatories. Leonardo Finger says the Mitchell House is unusually authentic because most of the furnishings and other items were there when the association, formed in 1902 by family members, friends and former students of Maria Mitchell, purchased it from an aunt of Mitchell’s in 1903.
“This is the room Maria was born in,” says Leonardo Finger during a tour of the Mitchell House on Vestal Street, not far from downtown Nantucket. Moving on to the 1790 home’s front sitting room, Leonardo Finger notes it was in this room where Maria Mitchell, just 12 and a half years old, helped her father calculate the longitude of their home by observing a solar eclipse in 1831.
Visitors to the house, open seasonally, can view such artifacts as Maria’s sewing box, a teacup she bought while on a tour of Europe, the opera glasses she used, and her Dollond telescope. Next door to the house is the Vestal Street Observatory, built in 1908 and housing the 5-inch Alvan Clark telescope given to Maria in 1859 by the Women of America.
Early on, the association was hosting lectures and observatory viewing, and by the 1920s it was offering science classes. “Up until the 1950s, the sites were still being run by family members,” Leonardo Finger says.
Mitchell believed in “learning by doing,” and led her Vassar students on trips, bringing a class to Iowa in 1869 to view a solar eclipse, and to Colorado in 1878 to view another total eclipse. Beloved by her students, Mitchell retired in 1888 because of failing health. She died in 1889 and was laid to rest in Nantucket’s Prospect Hill Cemetery next to her parents.
The Maria Mitchell Association strives to provide educational opportunities at a variety of levels, from weekly open nights at its Loines Observatory on Milk Street to a competitive internship program. For astronomy students, “This is the place to come,” says David Gagnon, executive director of the Maria Mitchell Association. “It’s a great stepping stone for those kids, and many of them go on to publish.”
Gagnon says the organization is equally proud of its efforts to make astronomy accessible. The open nights at Loines Observatory, he says, attract 3,000 to 4,000 people a year.
The nonprofit is marking this anniversary year with a number of events, including a summertime weekly speaker series and a “Comet Chaser Family Event” at Cisco Brewers on June 3. The July 8 Red-Tie Soirée at Sankaty Head Golf Club is the organization’s biggest fundraiser of the year, with proceeds supporting its work and historic preservation. The August 1 Maria Mitchell 200th Birthday Party and Parade will be followed by an August 10 Harborside Gala and a Meteor Shower Party on August 12.
Asked what Maria Mitchell would think of the organization dedicated to preserving her legacy, Leonardo Finger replies, “She would probably be shocked,” as she was modest by nature. But she thinks Mitchell would appreciate the work being done in her name, and the fact that the Maria Mitchell Association stays true to its mission.
“We do grow, we do change,” she says, “but there’s this heart that beats that’s still connected to Maria.”