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Faces From The Past-XXI

March 2023
3min read

Maria Mitchell studied the stars, and taught her students to reach for them.

Her mien was as plain and uncompromising as her treasured brass telescope, her life a long and relentless pursuit of the truth. At the age of twelve, Maria Mitchell observed an annular eclipse of the sun with her father, helping him to make and record his calculations, and for nearly six decades thereafter she was never out of touch with a telescope, nor her mind far from the heavens. She used to say it was an interest in mathematics—that and her father’s passion for astronomy—that started her sweeping the skies. But it was also the place she lived: Nantucket. On the island, people were in the habit of observing the heavens; everyone there was aware of the changes of the moon and stars, for to them the phrase “when my ship comes in” had a literal, not a figurative meaning. The majority of Nantucket men were gone, often for years at a time, to the vast, lonely waters where the sperm whale traveled; and as a consequence, it was customary for the women of the island to run businesses as well as households, to substitute for their absent men in nearly every way.

By day Maria taught school, urging her students to observe, to open their eyes, to question. By night she and her father watched the stars from the walk on top of their observations in a journal. On October 1, 1847, William Mitchell wrote in his notebook the words that were to bring his daughter worldwide fame: “This evening at half past ten Maria discovered a telescopic comet five degrees above Polaris. Persuaded that no nebula could occupy that position unnoticed, it scarcely needed the evidence of motion to give it the character of a comet.” This was her initial contribution to astronomy, and her achievement brought her a gold medal—an award established by Frederic VI, King of Denmark. It was the first such prize given to an American and the first to a woman anywhere. Maria quickly became known as the “Lady Astronomer”; she was the first woman elected to the America Academy of Arts and Sciences and to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. With all her honors she continued to do housework, to serve as librarian at the Nantucket Athenaeum, and to make her observations every night, goaded by thoughts that “the world of learning is so broad and the human soul is so limited in power.” She realized that “we reach forward and strain every nerve, but we seize hold only of a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.”

Late in August, 1862, she learned from Rufus Babcock, a trustee of the new women’s college founded by Matthew Vassar, that she was being considered for a position there. Since this was a time when women as well as men were disturbed by the idea of educating women, the new college was thought of—and not only by its Poughkeepsie neighbors—as “Vassar’s folly.” “Open the doors of your colleges to women,” one man predicted, “and you will accomplish the ruin of the commonwealth.” In going to Vassar, Maria hoped to find “students who would tax my utmost powers” and some “who shall go far beyond me.” She and her father arrived at Vassar Female College in 1865 and moved into the observatory that had been built for her. In the dome was a new twelve-inch telescope (in a photograph, taken in 1888, just before her retirement, she is seated beneath it; the young woman at right, Mary Whitney, was her assistant). Maria and William Mitchell had their sitting room in the clock room, surrounded by a brass chronograph, a marble sidereal clock, and bookcases filled with their volumes on astronomy.

It was at once apparent to the Vassar students that Maria Mitchell was a superb teacher. Insisting on accuracy and demanding the utmost of them, she managed to instill in the young women a sense of the order and beauty of the universe. Hers was the method that characterizes all great teaching—stimulating her students’ imaginations and allowing them freedom to question. Realizing that few of her girls would go into astronomy, she tried to give them the habit of mind that would serve in whatever they did, by enabling them to discover and test ideas on their own. “We must have a different kind of teaching,” she urged. “It must not be textbook teaching. … it is a feeble kind of science, which can be put on a blackboard, placed in array upon a table, or arranged upon shelves. … if the spirit of science can be developed at all in school rooms it must be by free debate; free thought and free inquiry are the very first steps in the path of science.”

She did not believe in marks (“You cannot mark a human mind,” she liked to say), nor did she require students to attend class (a “teacher of any magnetism” need not to worry about students being absent). Most college rules she considered absurd—especially the ones prescribing dress, manners, and discipline—and her career at the college was a running battle against conformity. To those troubled by the implications of Darwin’s Origin of Species, she advised that the revelations of God through the Bible and through Nature are never in conflict; “If they seem to be,” she observed, “it is because you do not understand one or the other.” And when her own views were questioned, she was philosophical: “The prison and the stake have passed away but the scientist who ventures to push his thoughts beyond received tradition must even yet expect to hear himself branded with the name infidel.”

As time passed, she devoted more of her energies to the fight for woman’s rights—in education and in other fields—and to the goal of equality in all respects with men. In her seventieth year she retired, and six months later, after noting matter-of-factly, “Well, if this is dying, there is nothing very unpleasant about it,” her stay on this planet came to an end.

--Robert M. Ketchum

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