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Nantucket’s brightest star

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.

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