Invitation to Maria Mitchell from AAAS

~ by Jascin N. Leonardo Finger, MMA Deputy Director and Curator of the Mitchell House, Archives & Special Collections ~

Maria Mitchell Association | Nantucket, MAIn 1848, Nantucket-born and raised Maria Mitchell (1818-1889) was invited to become the first female member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This prestigious academy’s membership included Mitchell’s father, William, who was inducted in 1846 and would later include her youngest brother, Henry Mitchell, a hydrographer. The item pictured here is her invitation to be inducted in that year. This would not be her first membership to a prestigious society nor would it be her last. As America’s first woman astronomer and the discoverer of a telescopic comet, Maria Mitchell was very much a household name in the nineteenth century. Because she was the first female member of the AAAS, there were members who were less than happy about her induction. Her father, and many of his friends and acquaintances, were supportive of her enrollment – that is obvious from the fact that she was able to gain membership. However, the gentleman who signed her invitation made a few “changes.” At the very top you can see where he purposely wrote “Sir” and then crossed it off. Further down the paper, you will note that where “Fellow” was printed he crossed that off and wrote “Honorary Member.” Fellow does imply the masculine, though as a member of a society often people are referred to as “fellows.” So while this is a slight, it’s not as maddening as the “Sir” that has been written on purpose and then crossed off. That seems, most surely, like a slap in the face! A “You don’t belong here. You are not a man!” sort of slap. One wonders how Maria Mitchell and her father and their family reacted upon seeing this. But knowing Maria Mitchell, it was just another challenge and one to be overcome.

Founded in 1780, when it was established by the Massachusetts legislature, the AAAS is one of the oldest learned societies in the United States. Its aim was, and still is, to address social and intellectual issues especially at the beginnings of a new republic. Its founders included James Bowdoin, John Adams, Samuel Adams, John Hancock and soon would grow to include George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton among many other luminaries and great minds of their times. Politicians, scholars, doctors, scientists, merchants, clergy, and farmers – many became members, adding to the growth of the organization. As it continued to grow well into the nineteenth century, members came to include: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John J. Audubon, Louis Agassiz, and Asa Gray – the man who signed Maria Mitchell’s own AAAS invitation According to the AAAS, “The American Academy of Arts and Sciences is a body politic and corporate {sic.} by the same name, forever established by the Council and the House of Representatives in the General Court of the Province of Massachusetts Bay as recorded in Chapter 46 of the Acts of 1779. The principal office of the Academy shall be located in Massachusetts.

As enacted above, the stated ‘end and design of the institution of the said Academy is to promote and encourage the knowledge of the antiquities and the natural history of America; to determine the uses to which the various natural productions of the country may be applied; to promote and encourage medical discoveries, mathematical disquisitions, philosophical enquiries and experiments, astronomical, meteorological and geographical observations, and improvements in agriculture, arts, manufactures and commerce; and, in fine, to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity and happiness of a free, independent and virtuous people.'”

Henry Cabot Lodge, Albert Einstein, and Woodrow Wilson were some of the individuals inducted in the early twentieth century. As one can see, no women have been mentioned here besides Maria Mitchell. In fact, Maria Mitchell was not only the first female member – although one can see by the invitation they were not sure how they felt about her induction – she remained the only woman until 1943, almost 100 years later. The next women after Maria Mitchell to be inducted included author Willa Cather, astronomer Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, and educator Ada Louise Comstock.

Today, the AAAS continues its original mission and “convenes leaders from the academic, business, and government sectors to address critical challenges facing our global society. Through studies, publications, and programs on the Humanities, Arts, and Education; Science, Engineering, and Technology; Global Security and International Affairs; and American Institutions and the Public Good, the Academy provides authoritative and nonpartisan policy advice to decision-makers in government, academia, and the private sector.”

Currently, the AAAS boasts a membership of over 4,000 individuals and also continues to include honorary foreign members, Stephen Hawking being one of them. There are more than 200 Nobel Prize laureates and 100 Pulitzer Prize winners who are members of the AAAS. It offers prizes and fellowships, conducts research, and creates publications all in support of its mission to address challenges confronted by our society.

The AAAS is still an active group and at least one other Nantucket community member is a Fellow, Professor Alfred Crosby.

The Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association (MMA) holds Maria Mitchell’s AAAS invitation and her father, William’s, certificate of membership in its collections. The MMA was founded in 1902 to preserve the legacy of Maria Mitchell and to promote her belief in learning-by-doing. An astronomer and natural scientist, as well as an educator, Maria Mitchell shot to worldwide fame when she discovered a comet in 1846. For her discovery, she was awarded a gold medal from the King of Denmark – the first American and first woman to receive the honor. She served as the Professor of Astronomy and Mathematics at Vassar College from 1865 until 1888. Today, the MMA operates two observatories, a natural science museum, an aquarium, and the birthplace of Maria Mitchell. The MMA conducts scientific research, leads classes and workshops for people of all ages year-round, and welcomes thousands of visitors to its museums and observatories. For details on the organization and its programs, visit mariamitchell.org