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Maria Mitchell: A Life in Journals and Letters,

edited by Henry Albers, College Avenue Press, Clinton Corners, NY, 2001


Book Review by Vera C. Rubin, Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, Carnegie Institution of Washington

January 2002

Vera Rubin has astronomy degrees from Vassar College and Cornell University and a Ph.D. from
Georgetown University. She has been on the staff of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism of the
Carnegie Institution of Washington for over 35 years. Dr. Rubin has been honored extensively for her
work in observational cosmology, and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a
recipient of the National Medal of Science. [See Rubin Symposium announcement on page 20.]

 

WHEN VASSAR Female College opened in 1865, one of its few buildings was an observatory, and its first
professor of astronomy was Maria Mitchell (MM). She, like other brilliant women of her generation, had an
international reputation and an impressive list of achievements, but no college degree.
These women had been taught their professions by a supportive father, brother, husband, or
male friend; they would teach the first generation of U.S. women who obtained college degrees in science. In turn, these collegeeducated women would become science professors at colleges for women. Their students
would break open the doors of American universities, and obtain the first science Ph.D. degrees for women in the United States.


Mitchell was born in 1818 on Nantucket Island, where women played a significant role in
the intellectual and fiscal life while the men were at sea. From her father, a banker and
amateur astronomer, she learned astronomy with a telescope on the roof of their home. After
graduation from school at age 16, she organized a school for girls, each of whom paid a penny a
day to attend. This may have been the first racially integrated school in the U.S.


At age 18, she accepted a position as the first librarian at the Atheneum, the intellectual center
of the island. Her very special talents must have been apparent, even as a teenager. As librarian,
she had access to books from which she educated herself in subjects as diverse as literature, calculus,
and statistical computational astronomy. Through lectures on Nantucket and visits to
Boston, she made friends with Emerson, Whittier, Alcott, and Peabody. October 1, 1847,
while her parents were entertaining guests at dinner, MM was using the telescope as she
did most nights, sweeping the sky in search of comets. But this night she discovered one.
Ultimately, she received a gold medal from the King of Denmark, offered for the discovery
of a telescopic comet.


Henry Albers, for 32 years a professor of astronomy at Vassar College, has combed her
diaries, journals, and letters from all over the world and compiled a wonderfully
informative and entertaining story of the intellectual growth of this wise and witty woman.
Thus it is mostly in Mitchell’s words that we follow the life of a brilliant woman who was
offered opportunities never before offered to an American woman scientist. In return, her
horizons broadened, and she grew to play a major role in the founding years of Vassar
College, in the lives of her students, in the larger domain of education
for women, and ultimately in the political arena of women’s rights. Always, she was
searching for truth.


The discovery of the comet changed Mitchell’s life. She became in the U.S. a symbol
of the emergence of women into the public world of science; worldwide, the community of
male scientists and literary figures opened to her. She was elected into the American Academy
of Arts and Science (AAAS) in 1848, one of its first woman members, and she was an active
member of the AAAS. She accepted a job offered by the Nautical Almanac Office when it opened
in 1849; her responsibility was computing the positions of the planet Venus. Mornings she
calculated orbits, afternoons she was the librarian in the Atheneum, and evenings were spent
sweeping the sky for comets. As the only unmarried child in a family of 10 children, her
days and months were sometimes filled with caring for sick relatives. At those times, she
carried her calculations into the sick room. Her financial independence and her accomplishments, rare for a woman at that time, offered her unique opportunities to travel.


Living at a time when a trip from New York City to Nantucket was an ocean voyage, her
travels for her own education and for science inspire awe. Apparently wanting more in her life
than computations and books, in 1857 she quit her job as librarian and journeyed alone to the
West. As the escort of a young woman from Chicago, she traveled down the Mississippi
River and up the east coast of the U.S. She carried letters of introduction to important
and interesting people; her comments are always insightful. From a slave market in
New Orleans, she wrote, “I could hold my tongue and look around without much outward
show of disgust, but to talk pleasantly to the trader I could not consent.” From Mammoth
Cave, where they ascended and descended ladders, and crossed rough bridges over gaping
abysses, “if two ladies travel alone, they must have the courage of men.”


Her travels continued for one year more, to England, France, Italy, and Austria.
There was hardly an important observatory she did not visit, nor an important scientist
she did not meet. Sir George Airy and Sir John Herschel and their families became her
friends. To Airy she presented a photograph of the stars taken by the Bonds at Harvard. The
English astronomers had then only photographed the moon. Herschel presented her with a
sheet from Caroline Herschel’s (his aunt) notebooks in which she had recorded William
Herschel’s observations. Mitchell describes her social interactions with astronomers
Leverrier, Enke, von Humboldt, Secchi, Mary Somerville, and father Wilhelm and son Karl
Struve. Much of the travel in France and Italy was with Nathaniel Hawthorne and his
family. During this time, she was also making calculations for the Almanac Office, for they
had refused her request to retain her position but do no work during her travels.


Mitchell’s comments concern many whose names we recognize today. At a reception in
London: “Several gentlemen spoke to me without a special introduction... Dr. Toynbee is a young
man not over thirty, full of enthusiasm and progress, like an American. He really seemed to
me all alive, and is either a genius or crazy - the shade between is so delicate that I can’t always
tell to which a person belongs.” On observatories:“All the early observatories of Europe seem to
have been built as temples to Urania, and not of working chambers of science.” After discussing
their individual failings (including pillars that hide stars) she concludes, “Well might Struve
say... ‘an observatory should be simply a box to hold instruments.’” On travel: “Nothing can be
more dreary than the (14 hour) day passed between Civita Vecchia and Rome, in a vettura.
Had (Mr. Hawthorne) spoken between the two towns, I did not hear him... there came on a
drizzling rain, we had no food and were all quite devoid of enthusiasm when we entered
Rome in the darkness of midnight.” On customs: “Manners and customs differ in every
place... You buy apples by the pound, and hooks and eyes by the ounce. Not having a very definite
idea of weight, I bo’t a pound of one and was surprised by the small amount, an ounce of the
other and found I had hooks and eyes enough for the rest of my life.”


Her return voyage started from London, where she heard Charles Dickens read “The
Cricket on the Hearth.” MM asked the ship’s captain if he would put her ashore at
Nantucket, as they passed within 30 miles of the Island. His reply, “... that I ought not to live
there, if I can’t go the long way around to New York,” concludes her engrossing and detailed
travelogue.


It was in her role as an educator of women that MM revealed her greatness. Vassar
College opened in 1865 with eight professors, two of them women, and ten teachers, eight
of them women. From the start, she believed that the students should be doing meaningful scientific
work. “We are students learning together.” She refused to lecture to the students what they
could find in textbooks.


The students published a column in Science Monthly (shortly to become Scientific American)
which contained their calculations of the rising and the setting of the planets and other celestial
phenomena. They calculated orbits, determined local times with a transit telescope, and counted
meteors, including those of the great meteor shower of 1866. “Are there 17 students in
Harvard College who take Mathematical Astronomy do you think?” (1865). “I asked
(Prof. Pierce of Harvard, after MM had attended one of his classes) if a young lady presented
herself at the door if he could keep her out and he said ‘No and I shouldn’t’. I told him I would
send some of my girls” (1866). “It is better to be peering in the spectrograph than on the
pattern of a dress... it is better to spend an hour in watching the habits of an insect then in trying
to put up their hair fantastically” (1872).


She traveled in 1869 with current and previous students to observe an eclipse in Iowa, and again
in 1878 to an eclipse in Colorado. Each student had a task: to count half seconds from the
chronometer in order to time each contact, to observe and sketch the corona, to observe planets
and stars. MM’s account of the Iowa eclipse in Hours at Home included, “My assistants, a
party of young students, would not have turned from the narrow line of observation assigned to
them if the earth had quaked beneath them... Was it because they were women?” She taught,
“We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is
somewhat beauty and poetry.” She taught, “The step, however small, which is in advance of the
world, shows the greatness of the person, whether that step be taken with brain, with
heart, or with hands.” Her students reported that they “went out of her class room alive with
energy and purpose.” By 1873, when she traveled to Russia with her nephew, her visit to
the Pulkova Observatory was secondary to her visits relating to education for women.


At an 1873 meeting of the Woman’s Club of Boston, Prof. Pierce admitted that Marie Agnesi,
the Italian mathematician, was the single original woman in science. In her diary, MM commented,
“It seems to me if, in 1800 years with every advantage some 12 men have been original in
science, and with every disadvantage one woman has been, the woman’s mind must be truly
wonderful.” Yet MM herself was surprisingly modest. Following the award of an honorary
Ph.D. from Rutgers in 1870, she wrote the Vassar president, “I submitted to my title twenty
four whole hours, after which I announced that the joke was old, and have resumed the brief
one of MM” She did not mention in her diary the LL.D degree conferred on her by Hanover
College in 1882. And the diploma awarding her a Doctor of Laws degree in April 1887 (sent to
her by Columbia College in October, 1887) was followed by a letter in November asking if
she had received it. Would she have preferred a Doctor of Science diploma?


During the last decades of her life, disappointed that women professionals were still
second-class citizens, MM reached out to a wider audience. She and Dr. Avery, the only
woman professors at Vassar, were paid less than one-half the salary of the male professors. Their
continual salary disputes with the college were never resolved. MM became President of the
Association for the Advancement of Women (AAW) in 1874, an organization she helped to
found. Julia Ward Howe was an executive of the Association. In 1876, at the Fourth Congress of
the AAW, MM presented a paper on The Need of Women in Science. From it, Albers has
included a hauntingly poetic paragraph.

“Does anyone suppose that any woman in all the ages has had a fair chance to show what she
could do in science?… The laws of nature are not discovered by accidents; theories do not
come by chance, even to the greatest minds; they are not born of the hurry and worry of
daily toil; they are diligently sought, they are patiently waited for, they are received with
cautious reserve, they are accepted with reverence and awe. And until able women have given
their lives to investigation, it is idle to discuss the question of their capacity for original
work.” Maria Mitchell left Vassar in 1888 due to ill health, and never returned; she died the
following year.


Those of us who now attempt to open science to more women have never faced the
questions that MM was asked, and the questions that were then debated at scientific societies:
Can women’s brains and bodies survive doing science? Are women capable to doing science?
Henry Albers has produced a remarkable book that follows the intellectual growth of a young
Nantucket girl, passionate about astronomy, who developed into a brilliant woman devoted
to educating younger women to become scientists. As an astronomy student at Vassar College, I
could not understand why her astronomical interests led ultimately to her extensive activitie
on behalf of women. After reading Alber’s book about this extraordinary woman, I understand.

 

Autographed copies of the book, Maria Mitchell: A Life in Journals and Letters, may be obtained by
sending $25 directly to:

Dr. Henry Albers,
8810 Leabrook Street,
Fairhope, AL 36532.

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