Maria Mitchell: A Starlit Legacy

by Carl Oscar Olson

The night sky above Nantucket is not like most places. Celestial bodies seem to shine differently here, thirty miles out to sea and surrounded by the dark waters of the Atlantic. We are far enough away from big city light pollution, and the air is clearer. On a clear night, this island boasts some of the best stargazing human eyes can behold.

It was one of those clear island nights a little after 10 pm on October 1st in 1847. Maria Mitchell was alone, perched atop the Pacific National Bank on Main Street. where here father was a cashier. While families, friends, and neighbors in the houses below were settling in for the evening, Maria was sweeping the sky with her family’s tiny telescope. She spotted a blurry object that was not noted on any of her star charts: she had discovered a comet, a singular event that would change not only her life but the world as a we know it.

Three months after her discovery, Mitchell published the notice of her discovery in Silliman’s Journal, now the American Journal of Sciences, under her father’s name due to her fear of gender discrimination by the scientific community. A month later she submitted her calculations of the comet’s orbit, memorializing her as the original discoverer of what became known as Miss Mitchell’s Comet. She was honored and celebrated that year at the Seneca Falls Convention, the world’s very first convention centered on women’s rights. By 1850, Mitchell became the first woman to be elected fellow to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Frederick VI, the King of Denmark, was a fellow fan and advocate of astronomy. He decided to award a gold medal to discoverers of new comets, and though he died in 1839, his son, Christian VIII, carried on his wishes. After some debate and procedure, more than a year later, Maria’s gold medal finally arrived on Nantucket.

Mitchell was born on August 1, 1818 in the town of Nantucket. She was the third of 10 children and was raised a Quaker, a religion practiced by many islanders of the day. She started her learning at a young age and attended Elizabeth Gardener’s Small School. At the age of 9 she moved on to the North Grammar School. Two years following the founding of that establishment, her father built his own school on Howard Street, which Maria attended not only as a student, but also as a teaching assistant to her father. Learning was always encouraged in the Mitchell household. Maria’s father taught her basic astronomy using his personal telescope, a spark that would start fires in mind and around the world in the years to come.

Thanks is also due in part to the religion under which she was raised. Quaker values held equality between the sexes high, especially when it came to intellect and education. Furthermore, Nantucket’s global importance as a worldwide whaling port meant that the wives, sisters, and daughters of sailors were often left for months, if not years, while the men of the house were at sea. Household and business affairs were the sole responsibility of the women on Nantucket, a fact that fostered an air of independence and equality for island women.

In 1856, Mitchell left her position at The Atheneum as the island’s first librarian and went on to travel the country and the world. In 1865, she became the first professor of astronomy at Vassar College, and was named director of the observatory there. Thanks in part to Mitchell’s work at the school, Vassar College enrolled more students in mathematics and astronomy than Harvard University for more than 20 years.

Since the world tends to forget, many efforts have been and continue to be made to ensure Maria Mitchell lives on. She has been inducted into the United States National Women’s Hall of Fame, and in 1989 was named a National Women’s History Month Honoree by the National Women’s History Project. She was the namesake of a World War II Liberty Ship, The S.S. Maria Mitchell, and New York’s Metro North commuter line has a train named for her, “The Maria Mitchell Comet.” The internet search engine Google even paid tribute with a “doodle” on her birthday in 2013.

The most important act of memorialization is without a doubt the creation of the Maria Mitchell Association. Founded in 1902 by former students, family members, and admirers, their mission for well over a century has been to preserve the legacy of astronomer, naturalist, librarian, and educator, Maria Mitchell. She saw the magic to behold in science and the world around her and was always an advocate of the hands-on approach to learning. The MMA carries that torch today by fostering all of the sciences on island.

The MMA is proud to offer programs, museums, and other learning experiences for people of all ages with two observatories, a natural science museum, an aquarium, and a wide variety of history related programming throughout the year. All provide an approachable avenue that make the sciences both fascinating and fun. One simple motto – “Explore, Educate, Enjoy” – captures the essence of the programs and activities.

This year, the MMA is celebrating the 200th birthday of Maria Mitchell all season, with festivities at a number of locations throughout the summer.

This Wednesday, August 1, is Maria Mitchell’s birth date, so the MMA is planning a day filled with fun and science. A parade in honor of Maria Mitchell begins at 12 noon on Wednesday, August 1st. Kids of all ages are invited to line up and march from the Atheneum at 1 India Street to Maria’s birthday party on Vestal Street where there will be live music from Mitchell’s era, falconry demonstrations, live animals, astronomy activities, face painting, sidewalk art, refreshments, and more. At 9 pm, the MMA will host one of their Open Nights at the Loines Observatory. Throughout Maria’s birth day, all will be admitted free to all of the sites and museums in the MMA network.

Before and after the birthday party on August 1, stop by the Visitor Center on Federal Street for a “Walking in the Footsteps of Maria Mitchell” walking map and a commemorative enameled pin. Watch for the Pop-Up Science Carts listed in our calendar of events, and visit the aquarium, museums, observatories, and the Historic Mitchell House, the location of Maria Mitchell’s birth.

A full list of Maria Mitchell Association sites, classes, workshops, and events can be found at mariamitchell.org.