Mitchell, Maria (1818–1889)

views updated

Mitchell, Maria (1818–1889)

American astronomer and educator who discovered a new comet and became one of the best-known faculty members at Vassar College. Born Maria Mitchell on August 1, 1818, on the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts; died of "brain disease" on June 28, 1889, in Lynn, Massachusetts; third of ten children, nine of whom lived to maturity, of William Mitchell (a cooper, teacher, and astronomer) and Lydia (Coleman) Mitchell; attended her father's school; attended academy of Cyrus Peirce; never married.

Born into a family of Quakers; attended local schools; at age 12, recorded a solar eclipse with her father (1831); opened own schools for girls briefly; was librarian at the Nantucket Athenaeum for 20 years; assisted father with the Coast Survey and made thousands of accurate observations; left Quaker religion (1843); discovered a new comet (1848) and was awarded a gold medal by the king of Denmark; elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston; appointed one of the original computists for the new American Ephemeria and Nautical Almanac (1849); elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1850); moved to Lynn, Massachusetts, with widowed father (1861); enticed by Matthew Vassar to join the faculty at Vassar College where he built the third largest observatory in the country for her; taught at Vassar (1865–88); elected to the American Philosophical Society (1869); elected vice-president of the American Social Science Association (1873); was one of the founders of the Associationfor the Advancement of Women (1873); served as president of AAW (1875 and 1876) and chaired the science committee until her death.

Selected publications:

various articles in Silliman's Journal, The Nantucket Inquirer, Scientific American, The Century, Hours at Home; also wrote "Editor's Preface" to Guillemin's Wonders of the Moon.

In 1831, when Maria Mitchell was 12 years old, she charted, with her father's assistance, a total eclipse of the sun. According to her biographer Helen Wright , Mitchell never forgot the power of that experience: "the darkness, the stillness, the dawning sense that she was part of a great and orderly universe."

Born in 1818 into a Quaker family, Maria Mitchell grew up in Nantucket, Massachusetts, where life was dominated by the sea and the stars. Nantucket was then the greatest whaling port in the world, and knowledge of the skies in order to navigate the oceans was imperative. The third of ten children, nine of whom lived to maturity, Maria was a particular favorite of her absent-minded father whose love of astronomy she inherited. At the time of Maria's birth, William Mitchell was a cooper. In 1827, he became the master of the first free school on Nantucket and in 1836 a cashier of the Pacific Bank. But his real interest was astronomy, and soon he was commissioned to rate the chronometers for the Nantucket whaling fleet by checking them with stellar observations. Gradually, Maria began to help her father, and, as she said later, her love of mathematics, her father's example, and her Nantucket environment led to her love of astronomy.

Maria's mother Lydia Mitchell was a more stern and unloving parent, likely because of multiple births, lack of income, and a devout Quakerism. Mitchell's biographer tells of a day when William told Lydia that it was time to call in their children from the garden and send the neighbor children home. "But" Lydia replied, "they are all thine, husband." Years later, Maria Mitchell would characterize her childhood in a way her mother would have approved. "Our want of opportunity was our opportunity—our privations were our privileges, our needs were our stimulants—we are what we are partly because we had little and wanted much, and it is hard to tell which was the more powerful factor."

Mitchell grew in her powers of observation even while she defied strictures about studiousness. In her first dame school (schools run by widows to support themselves and their children similar to many modern-day childcare arrangements) and, later, in the school her father operated,

Maria's interest in the stars deepened. It was when she attended Cyrus Peirce's School for Young Ladies, however, that her mathematical ability was nurtured. Peirce, who would later be appointed by Horace Mann to head the first normal school (teacher-training institutions) in America, recognized her self-discipline and the imaginative spirit which allowed her to see every angle of a problem. "I was born of only ordinary capacity," she said, "but of extraordinary persistency."

In 1835, after a brief stint as Peirce's assistant, Maria Mitchell, at age 17, opened a school for girls. Despite her concern that none would attend, the school was a success, and girls from a wide variety of backgrounds sought and gained admission. However, financial reverses for her father coupled with a new opportunity to earn money led her to close her school and accept the position of librarian for the new Nantucket Athenaeum Library, a post she would hold for 20 years. Since the library was open afternoons and some evenings, Mitchell used her time to become self-educated, including teaching herself German.

In 1843, Maria Mitchell underwent a spiritual crisis and asked to be "disowned" by the Quakers. They complied, and she then attended, but never joined, the Unitarian Church. Shortly thereafter, her father was made head of the Pacific Bank, the family's fortunes improved, and Maria's life was changed forever. William had built a small observatory on top of the bank, where he and Maria spent most evenings observing the stars. On the night of October 1, 1847, William wrote in his notebook, "This evening at half past ten Maria discovered a telescopic comet five degrees above Polaris." The discovery made Maria Mitchell world famous. On November 20, William C. Bond of Harvard College noted: "It seems that Maria Mitchell's comet has not been previously seen in Europe." In 1831, the king of Denmark, Frederick VI, had commissioned a gold medal to be awarded to the first discoverer of a telescopic comet and, as Edward Everett, president of Harvard College, wrote to the famous historian George Bancroft, "It would be pleasant to have the Nantucket girl carry off the prize from all the greybeards and observatories in Europe." Despite the fact that the Nantucket "girl" was 29 years old, an American woman winning the medal would be considered a great coup on both sides of the Atlantic and, after considerable discussion, the king awarded the medal to Mitchell.

Nature made woman an observer. … The schools and schoolbooks have spoiled her.

—Maria Mitchell

In 1848, Maria Mitchell was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the first (and, until 1943, the only) woman so honored. The great botanist Asa Gray, who was secretary of the organization, protested this action on the part of the Academy and on the original certificate the word "Fellow" is crossed out and the words "Honorary Member" written in. However, all other members seem to have considered her a full-fledged participant, as her name was consistently published under "Fellow." In 1850, when the naturalist Louis Agassiz proposed her name to the Association for the Advancement of Science, Mitchell was unanimously elected and again was the first woman so chosen. Her accounts of these meetings indicate that she was not overly awed by all these honors. "It is really amusing to find one's self lionized in a city [New York] where one has visited quietly for years. … I suspect that the whole corps of science laughs in its sleeve at the farce." In 1849, Mitchell was asked to serve as a computist for the American Nautical Almanac and, for 19 years, held that position in addition to her other duties.

In 1861, after the death of her mother, Maria and her father moved to a married sister's home in Lynn, Massachusetts. Shortly thereafter, she was approached by Matthew Vassar, who was preparing to open the first truly equal college for women in Poughkeepsie, New York. Vassar was anxious to have a prominent woman scientist on the faculty, and Mitchell was highly qualified and available. After some hesitation because of her lack of formal education, Mitchell was persuaded to take the position when Vassar offered to build her the third largest observatory in the country.

Thus, at age 46, Maria Mitchell moved to Poughkeepsie with her widowed father and began her career as a college professor. But Mitchell distrusted authority. "Women, more than men are bound by tradition and authority," she wrote. "What the father, the brother, the doctor, and the minister have said has been received undoubtedly. Until women throw off this reverence for authority they will not develop." She at first refused to appear at chapel; finally, at the pleading of Matthew Vassar, she agreed to attend but sat in the very back so she could "think her own thoughts." Likewise, she refused to give students conventional grades since, "You cannot mark a human mind because there is no intellectual unit," and she refused to report student absences because, "To some the precision of military drill is the poetry of motion. I mourn over any loss of individuality." While one former student said she was "brusque but brilliant," Mitchell, nevertheless, inspired several students to become scientists and always included students on her field trips and in her observational schedules. Three former pupils, Mary Whitney, Christine Ladd-Franklin , and Ellen Swallow Richards , became leaders in the movement to increase opportunities for women in science. In addition, until 1932, the professors of astronomy at Vassar had all been students or grandstudents of Maria Mitchell.

Mitchell also became a fighter for equal salaries for women faculty at Vassar. In 1873, when Dr. Edward Clarke of Boston published Sex in Education which asserted that, at Vassar, women's health was being ruined by intensive study, she took the offensive and helped to found the Association for the Advancement of Women (AAW) in New York City. Mitchell served as president of the new organization from 1874 to 1876 and as chair of its committee on science from 1876 to 1888. Throughout the

1870s and 1880s, the AAW held an annual "Congress of Women," where issues such as temperance, women's suffrage, domestic science, higher education for women, and openings for women in the professions were all discussed. The organization provided a vehicle for Mitchell to promote the interests of women in science; in her presidential address in 1875, she noted: "In my younger days. … I used to say, 'How much women need exact science,' but since I have known some workers in science who were not always true to the teachings of nature, who have loved self more than science, I have now said, 'How much science needs women.'"

Recognition of the influence Maria Mitchell possessed in the broader realm was accorded her when, in 1869, she was the first woman elected to the American Philosophical Society (which had been founded by Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia). In 1873, she was made a vice-president of the American Social Science Association.

In 1888, her health failing, Mitchell retired from Vassar and returned to Lynn to live with her sister. She died the following year, at age 70, of what was reported to be a "brain disease." In a book of extracts from Mitchell's diaries and letters, her sister Phebe Mitchell Kendall (who unfortunately then destroyed the original documents out of what, she said, was deference to her sister's private nature) quotes the president of Vassar as saying, "If I were to select for comment the one most striking trait of her character, I would name her genuiness. … She has been an impressive figure in our time, and one whose influence lives."


Kendall, Phebe Mitchell, ed. Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters, and Journals. Boston, MA: Lee and Shepard, 1896.

Rossiter, Margaret W. Women Scientists In America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

Wright, Helen. "Maria Mitchell" in Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1971.

——. Sweeper in the Sky: The Life of Maria Mitchell First Woman Astronomer in America. NY: Macmillan, 1949.

suggested reading:

Conable, Charlotte. Women at Cornell: The Myth of Equal Education. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977.

Kohlstedt, Sally Gregory. "Maria Mitchell: The Advancement of Women in Science," in New England Quarterly. Vol. 51, 1978, pp. 39–63.

Newcomer, Mabel. A Century of Higher Education for American Women. NY: Harper and Brothers, 1959.

Rossiter, Margaret W. Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies from 1940 to the Present. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.


William C. Bond Collection, Widmer Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Massachusetts Historical Society; Maria Mitchell Collection, Vassar College Archives, Poughkeepsie, New York; Maria Mitchell Library, Nantucket, Massachusetts.

Anne J. Russ , Professor of Sociology, Wells College, Aurora, New York

About this article

Mitchell, Maria (1818–1889)

Updated About content Print Article