Mitchell, Maria

Maria MitchellMaria Mitchell (August 1, 1818-June 28, 1889), the first American woman astronomer, was the first professor of Astronomy at Vassar College and the first director of Vassar’s observatory. Honored internationally, she was one of the most celebrated American scientists of the 19th century.

Maria (Ma-RYE-ah) was the third of ten children born to Quakers Lydia Coleman and William Mitchell on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. William Mitchell, an amateur astronomer, shared with his children what he considered to be the evidence of God in the natural world. Only Maria was interested enough to learn the mathematics of astronomy. At age 12 Maria counted the seconds for her father while they observed a lunar eclipse. At 14 she could adjust a ship’s chronometer, a valuable skill in a whaling port. She preferred to stand on the roof searching the skies to gathering with the family or friends in the parlor.

Maria’s easy-going father was her best teacher in her younger years. Later she attended Cyrus Peirce’s School for Young Ladies. Hard-working as a student, she later modestly claimed, “I was born of only ordinary capacity, but of extraordinary persistency.” Having made the most of her own limited opportunities for schooling, she worked for a while at the Pierce School, and then operated her own school, 1835-36.

In 1836 Mitchell was hired as librarian at the new Nantucket Atheneum. With the books of the Atheneum at her disposal Mitchell pursued her studies in languages, mathematics, and navigation. Meanwhile, she and her father made observations of the stars to assist in navigational timekeeping and surveyed the coast of Nantucket. Her discovery of comet Mitchell 1847VI on the night of October 1, 1847, led to international recognition, contacts with the community of American astronomers, and employment doing calculations for the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac.

Although they cherished the peacefulness and simplicity of the Friends, the Mitchell family had long chafed under the puritanical Nantucket Quaker discipline. In her mid-twenties Mitchell began to question Quaker teachings. In 1843 she was interviewed by two women from her congregation. They recorded, “We have attended to our appointment in the case of Maria Mitchell. She informed us that her mind was not settled on religious subjects, and that she had no wish to retain her right in membership. We submit the case to the Monthly Meeting believing further labour to be unavailing.” She was accordingly disowned from membership. Afterwards, until she left Nantucket more than two decades later, she attended the Unitarian church, although she never became a member.

In her work at the Nantucket Atheneum, Mitchell encountered opinionated readers who insisted on engaging her in conversations about theology, in which she had no interest. “How much talk there is about religion!” she recorded in her diary. “Yesterday I had a Shaker visitor and a Catholic and the more I hear, the less do I care about church doctrines.” This did not however mean that Mitchell had no interest in God. “There is a God, and he is good,” she confided to her diary. “I try to increase my trust in this, my only article of creed.” After the deaths of three of her closest friends in 1855, and during her mother’s illness, she wrote, “What a change a fortnight has made. I have passed through a fortnight of great anxiety in nursing my Mother. I have never been a believer in a special Providence, but when I saw her recovering I felt like giving thanks to God and when anyone says to me ‘how is your mother,’ I felt like saying ‘Better, thank God’ instead of thank you. . . . I would have been glad to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to offer up on the holy sepulcher my thanks.”

Mitchell attended the Lyceum lectures at the Atheneum and met, amongst others, Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, William Agassiz, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lucy Stone, William Ellery ChanningHorace Greeley and Theodore Parker. A few, including Emerson, she invited to view the skies from her rooftop observatory.

In 1857 she accepted an offer from Gen. H. K. Swift, a Chicago banker, to accompany his daughter Prudence on a trip through the American West and South and to Europe. In Meadville, Pennsylvania she visited her sister Phebe and Phebe’s husband Joshua Kendall, who taught at the Meadville Seminary. She observed, in their progress, differences of culture between the northern and southern states. She witnessed slavery first-hand and learned of the constraints affecting white women in the South. For the Grand Tour of Europe Mitchell carried letters of introduction to leading scientists, most of whom were delighted to meet the American woman astronomer who had found a comet. She was shown the observatories in Greenwich, Cambridge, and, after some difficulty with papal authorities who were reluctant to allow a woman to enter, the Vatican Observatory. Of the latter visit she later commented, “I did not know that my heretic feet must not enter the sanctuary, that my woman’s robe must not brush the seats of learning.”

Matthew Vassar, who had established Vassar Female College in 1861 as “the first U.S. college exclusively for women-based on the principle that women should receive the same education, with the same standards, as that offered in men’s colleges,” insisted that women, in a women’s college, should be educated by women instructors. After several years delay due to opposition to women in the faculty within Vassar’s board of trustees, Mitchell was appointed Professor of Astronomy. She taught there from 1865 to 1888.

Mitchell was an advocate in the Woman’s Rights movement. The notable women of that movement, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and Susan B. Anthony, were her friends and compatriots in the struggle for equality in professions and reforms in education and health issues for women. Mitchell encouraged her students to think of themselves as professional women. She asked, “How many pulpits are open to women?” And, “Do you know of any case in which a boys’ college has offered a Professorship to a woman? Until you do, it is absurd to say that the highest learning is within the reach of American women.”

“For women, there are undoubtedly great difficulties in the path, but so much the more to overcome,” Mitchell told her students. “First, no woman should say, ‘I am but a woman.’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be? Born a woman, born with the average brain of humanity, born with more than the average heart, if you are mortal what higher destiny could you have? No matter where you are nor what you are, you are a power. Your influence is incalculable.”

At Vassar Mitchell was pressured to attend the college chapel, which was served by preachers of various denominations. She disliked sermons that did not touch the heart. Once, when the service interfered with her observation of Saturn, she asked the President to shorten his prayer. Baptist members of the trustees tried to have her dismissed. Her principal foe, trustee Nathan Bishop, called her a “rank Theodore Parker Unitarian.” She had a simple faith in both God and in science. After hearing a Universalist minister preach on the dangers of science, she wrote, “Scientific investigations, pushed on and on, will reveal new ways in which God works, and bring us deeper revelations of the wholly unknown.” She believed that the revelations of the Bible and understanding of nature through science not in conflict. “If they seem to be,” she said, “it is because you do not understand one or the other.”

Mitchell was the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1848; the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1850; and the American Philosophical Society, 1869. She was a founder and an early president of the American Association for the Advancement of Women, 1873. She was awarded medals by Denmark, 1848, and San Marino, 1859. In 1887 Columbia College (now University) bestowed upon her the honorary degree LL.D., Dr. of Science and Philosophy.

At her funeral on Nantucket Island, Vassar President James Monroe Taylor said, “If I were to select for comment the one most striking trait of her character, I should name her genuineness. There was no false note in Maria Mitchell’s thinking or utterance. Doubt she might and she might linger in doubt, but false she could not be . . . This genuineness explains also a marked feature of her religious experience. She would not use the language of faith often because it did not seem to her that she had clearly grasped the truths which came through faith. It would be a grave error to infer from this that she was not a religious woman in a true sense. She was always a seeker of truth . . . she fulfilled the exhortation of her friend Dr. Channing, ‘Worship God with what He most delights in, with aspiration for spiritual light and life.'”

Letters and other papers of Maria Mitchell are held by the Maria Mitchell Society of Nantucket and in the Vassar College Special Collections in Poughkeepsie, New York. Some letters and diaries are printed in Phebe Mitchell Kendall, Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters, and Journals (1896) and Henry Albers, ed., Maria Mitchell, A Life in Journals and Letters (2001). Biographies include Helen Wright, Sweeper in the Sky (1950), Beatrice Gormley, Maria Mitchell, The Soul of an Astronomer (1995). There is an entry by Sally Gregory Kohlstedt in American National Biography (1999). A major new biography of Mitchell by Margaret Moore Booker, sponsored by the Maria Mitchell Society, will be released in the near future.

Article by JoAnn Macdonald
Posted October 12, 2005