From Reminiscences of Famous Women by Harriet A. Townsend. This edition originally published in 1916.
These are busy days for intelligent women. Life broadens with the years. New interests and personalities attract and divert. We aim to live in the present and are prone to forget even the ones who made the nineteenth Century worth while for our sex.
“Lest we forget” is a pertinent watchword far too little heeded, as we push on to realize what some believe to be new and better ideals of womanhood. High on the list of those who should be remembered and recalled stands the name of Maria Mitchell, our famous astronomer. She was born on the Island of Nantucket, nearly one hundred years ago, and came of Quaker ancestry on both side. When very young her father taught her navigation and astronomy. He was employed by the Government Survey and had a small telescope in his home. Mr. Mitchell was an inspiring teacher and the daughter early developed a remarkable talent for mathematics. She became his most enthusiastic pupil and assisted her father in astronomical observations when only twelve years of age.
The Mitchells lived a very simple life and were poor in this world’s goods. The mother was a practical housekeeper and her daughters were well instructed in all domestic duties. Books were plenty in that Island home. The children lived happy, useful, though simple lives. Maria Mitchell served twenty year as librarian of the Nantucket Library , for which she received a salary of one hundred dollars a year. There she had leisure to become acquainted with the best literature and was able to pursue scientific studies to her heart’s content.
In the year 1847, Maria Mitchell discovered a comet, which was named for her. She received a gold medal from the King of Denmark and her fame began.
She made two memorable visits to Europe and became acquainted with Herschel, Humboldt and the woman astronomer, Mary Somerville. During her second trip abroad, she spent much time with the family of the Russian astronomer, Prof. Struve, at the Imperial Observatory in Pulkova. She met many celebrities and was honored whenever she went. It is interesting to read in the life written by her sister, extracts from Maria Mitchell’s diary, giving comments on what she saw and heard in her various travels.
She had a keen sense of humor and was always original and her criticisms, though just, were kindly given. Of English women she once said. “They are not curious; I cannot imagine an English woman as a gossip.” Her description of visits to the other great astronomers are especially delightful.
The first woman’s college in America was opened in 1865, and soon after that date Maria Mitchell was installed as Professor of Science and Director of the Observatory. Her work at Vassar College is widely known. For thoroughness and results, it has never been surpassed.
In the time of the great meteoric shower (1868) Professor Mitchell and her Vassar pupils traced the paths of four thousands meteors and gave valuable data of their height above the Earth, and this was only a beginning.
Hundreds of young women felt the impress of the strong character of their teacher. Her unconscious, as well as conscious tuition moulded all the lives with which she came in contact. To have been a pupil or friend of Maria Mitchell was a rare privilege. She was the very embodiment of truth; she taught with Browning that “life means learning to abhor the false and love the true.” She made comrades of her girls. Her appreciation of the genuine was never lacking. Many incidents might be given to illustrate this trait of her character. She once told with keen zest the story of a pupil with a vivid conscience, who added to her lesson paper the brief note, “I had some help about this.” On inquiry, it was found that only a slight suggestion had been given by a fellow student, but it had proved the “open sesame” to the solution of the problem. Maria Mitchell gloried in that girl. She gave her pupils odd names and titles. One she called “girl with a good aunt,” because she was the niece of a philanthropist, of whose work Miss Mitchell approved.
All Vassar students fortunate enough to be in the astronomy classes remember with delight the famous “Dome parties” given every year by their beloved teacher. Nonsense rhymes were there in order and the hostess could excel in that line. While her wagon was hitched to a star, she could unloose it and revel in fun. If all the quaint verses written for those “Dome parties” had been preserved, they would fill a book. Many pertinent hits were given, but the spirit of kindliness was ever present at those festivities held in Vassar Observatory. They were helpful, if hilarious occasions, never to be forgotten.
Professor Mitchell was the first woman elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It was said of her that “although she was famous as an astronomer and teacher, her mind did not move in a fixed orbit, but swept over broad fields of thought.” She was a suffragist, but never prominent in that work; she was a member of Sorosis and the New England Woman’s Club; was one of the early presidents of the famous Association for the Advancement of Women; attended its annual congress and mid-year conferences whenever possible, and was a vital force for its ideals. Women felt it worth while to serve on a Board of Directors with Maria Mitchell. While her mind was so often absorbed in great mathematical problems, her heart was ever open to “the cry of the human.”
In 1902 a Nantucket Memorial Association was organized and the birthplace of Maria Mitchell, No. 1 Vestal street, was purchased and put in excellent order for its educational purposes. There are stored scientific collections of local importance (flora and fauna), Professor Mitchell’s manuscripts and notes and many valuable autograph letters which concern herself and her work.
The telescope presented her by “the women of America,” through the efforts of Elizabeth Peabody, has been remounted and placed in Memorial Building for service to students.
A working library of Professor Mitchell’s books and many recent books on astronomy have been added. Summer classes are held under the instruction of a competent astronomer. The Association membership includes many friends, scientists and Vassar students, and is increasing. No more appropriate memorial to one of America’s most gifted women could be made.
Maria Mitchell was a vigorous woman, seldom disabled by the common ills of life. As we count years, she lived to be old, but she was ever young in mind, heart and soul.
It would be impossible to overestimate the value of such a life, its seed still prospers and “blossoms as the rose.”