Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/February 1897/Sketch of Maria Mitchell

PSM V50 D450 Maria Mitchell.jpg



THE list of the great inscribed on the Boston Public Library bears the name of one American woman—Maria Mitchell. While other names of women equally worthy to be recorded there may easily occur to all of us, the validity of Miss Mitchell's title to be thus remembered will not be doubted.

Maria Mitchell was born on the island of Nantucket, August 1, 1818, and died in Lynn, Mass., June 28, 1889. Her parents belonged to the Society of Friends, of the colony who settled in Nantucket when that island belonged to New York; the father a school teacher and afterward cashier of a bank, indulgent to his children, fond of animals and kind to them, and cultivating a well-developed taste for experimental astronomy. He was also fond of beauty and of enjoyable things, and, as the rules of the society would not allow him to wear bright colors, he indulged his taste for them by buying red-covered copies of books, painting the framework of his telescope bright red, spreading a gay carpet on the floor, papering his sitting room with pink rose designs, and displaying the polarization of light. The mother was a woman of strong character, clear-headed and demonstrative. Books were abundant, in the house and at the library. Mr. Mitchell from his early youth was an enthusiastic student of astronomy. The evenings when pleasant, Mrs. Phœbe M. Kendall says in her biography, "were spent in observing the heavens, and to the children, accustomed to seeing such observations going on, the important study in the world seemed to be astronomy. One by one, as they became old enough, they were drafted into the service of counting seconds by the chronometer during the observations. Some of them took an interest in the thing itself, and others considered it rather stupid work; but they all took in so much of this atmosphere that, if any one had asked a little child of this family, ‘Who was the greatest man that ever lived?’ the answer would have come promptly, ‘Herschel.’" Maria very early learned to use the sextant. On the occasion of the annular eclipse of the sun of 1831—central at Nantucket—when she was twelve years old, she held the chronometer, counting the seconds, while her father observed the eclipse. This event was called up in her diary, March 16, 1885, when she wrote, mentioning it, that now, "fifty-four years later, I counted seconds for a class of students at Vassar; it was the same eclipse, but the sun was only about half covered. Both days were perfectly clear and cold." At sixteen she became an assistant teacher in the school of Mr. Cyrus Peirce, where she had been a pupil; afterward opened a private school; and then became, for twenty years, librarian of the Nantucket Athenæum. In the library she found Dr. Bowditch's translation of La Place's Mécanique céleste and Gauss's Theoria Motus, in Latin, and read them. She also read voraciously on all subjects; and, as librarian, saw that the boys and girls got good books, while she skillfully kept the unwholesome ones out of their sight. While enjoying in her home all advantages for the cultivation of her scientific tastes. Miss Mitchell took her part in all the household work, knew how everything was to be done, and did what she did thoroughly. On one occasion, when the "help" had gone, she took charge, and made a record of how she spent the day. It was late in October. She arose at six, having been half asleep only for some hours, fearing she might not be up in time to get breakfast. "It was but half light, and I made a hasty toilet. I made a fire very quickly, prepared the coffee, baked the Graham bread, toasted white bread, trimmed the solar lamp, and made another fire in the dining room before seven o'clock. . . . I really found an hour too long for all this, and when I rang the bell at seven for breakfast, I had been waiting fifteen minutes for the clock to strike. I went to the Athenæum at 9.30, and, having decided that I would take the Newark and Cambridge places of the comet and work them up, did so, getting to the three equations before I went home to dinner at 12.30. I omitted the corrections for parallax and aberration, not intending to get more than a rough approximation. I find to my sorrow that they do not agree with those from my own observations. I shall look them over again next week. At noon I ran around and did several errands, dined, and was back again at my post by 1.30. Then I looked over my morning's work—I can find no mistake. I have worn myself thin trying to find out about this comet, and I know very little now in the matter. I saw, in looking over Cooper, elements of a comet of 1825 which resemble what I get out for this from my own observations, but I can not rely upon my own. I saw also to-day in Monthly Notices a plan for measuring the light of stars by degrees of illumination—an idea which occurred to me long ago, but which I have not practiced." The next day she got breakfast again, and varied her astronomical computation with tatting, reading in Humboldt's Cosmos for rest when she was tired; and in the evening, it being stormy and no observing, made a loaf of bread, worked at tatting and gave a lesson in it, and completed sixteen hours of steady work.

The discovery of a comet by Miss Mitchell, which first made her known to the world as an astronomer, is thus described in Mrs. Kendall's Life, Letters, and Journals: "Miss Mitchell spent every clear evening on the housetop ‘sweeping’ the heavens. No matter how many guests there might be in the parlor. Miss Mitchell would slip out, don her regimentals, as she called them, and, lantern in hand, mount to the roof. On the evening of October 1, 1847, there was a party of invited guests at the Mitchell home. As usual, Maria slipped out, ran up to the telescope, and soon returned and told her father that she thought she saw a comet. Mr. Mitchell hurried upstairs, stationed himself at the telescope, and, as soon as he looked at the object pointed out by his daughter, declared it to be a comet. Miss Mitchell, with her usual caution, advised him to say nothing about it until they had observed it long enough to be tolerably sure. But Mr. Mitchell immediately wrote to Prof. Bond, of Cambridge, announcing the discovery. On account of stormy weather, the mails did not leave Nantucket until October 3d." The comet was seen by Father de Vico at Rome, October 3d, and word of it was immediately sent to Prof. Schumacher at Altoona; by Mr. W. R. Dawes in Kent, England, October 7th; and by Madame Riimker at Hamburg, October 11th. The priority of Miss Mitchell's discovery was generally acknowledged. The King of Denmark had offered a gold medal to the first discoverer of a telescopic comet, but, dying, was succeeded by a king not so much interested in astronomy. Miss Mitchell, moreover, failed in securing priority of registry of the discovery, according to the terms laid down in the king's offer—a thing that was impossible in those days before the Atlantic telegraph. Her claim was taken up and pressed by Edward Everett, and referred by the king to Prof. Schumacher, who reported in favor of granting the medal to her. A few months after this, in 1848, Miss Mitchell was unanimously elected an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, being the first and only woman ever admitted to that society. She afterward became a member of the American Institute and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Of the meeting of this body in Boston in 1855, she wrote: "It is really amusing to find one's self lionized in a city where one has visited quietly for years. . . . For a few days science reigns supreme—we are fêted and complimented to the top of our heart, and although complimenters and complimented must feel that it is only a sort of theatrical performance for a few days and over, one does enjoy acting the part of greatness for a while!" In 1849 Miss Mitchell, on the invitation of the late Admiral Davis, undertook the computations, for the Nautical Almanac, of the tables of the planet Venus—a work which she carried on, in addition to other duties, for nineteen years. In the same year she was employed by Prof. Bache, of the United States Coast Survey, in the work of an astronomical party at Mount Independence, Maine.

In 1854 she records her "sweeping" of the heavens—a kind of work she really enjoyed, though her back soon became tired before the cold chilled her; in March, seeing two nebulæ in Leo with which she was not familiar and which repaid her for her time; and on September 18th, observing the two nebulæ in Ursa Major, which she had known "for many a year," but which to her surprise now appeared to be three. "The bright part of this object was clearly the old nebula, but what was the appendage? Had the nebula suddenly changed? Was it a comet, or was it merely a very fine night? Father decided at once for the comet; I hesitated, with my usual cowardice, and forbade his giving it a notice in the newspaper." Flying clouds prevented more satisfactory observations that evening and the next two, but "on the 2lst came a circular, and behold Mr. Van Arsdale had seen it on the 13th, but had not been sure of it until the 15th on account of the clouds. I was too well pleased with having really made the discovery to care because I was not the first. Let the Dutchman have the reward of his sturdier frame and steadier nerves!" She consoled herself, further, by reflecting that the 13th was cloudy, and that she had evaded the task of making the computations, which she would have had to do to call the discovery hers. She seems, however, to have tried her hand at the computations, and was despondent because she had to renounce her own observations as too rough for use. "The best that can be said of my life so far is that it has been industrious, and the best that can be said of me is that I have not pretended to be what I was not."

The diary for 1857 tells of an extensive tour through the South, the many striking incidents of which are recorded with keen humor, and the first journey in Europe, in which Miss Mitchell took her almanac work with her.

On this her first visit to Europe, in 1857–’58, Miss Mitchell took letters from eminent scientific men in the United States to distinguished astronomers and mathematicians, and other persons, abroad. She was cordially received, and the astronomers opened their observatories to her and entertained her at their homes. To mention the names of all the notable persons whose acquaintance she thus made would be like making a list of the men of the time distinguished in science, literature, and art. Her observations, very freely given in her private journal but always kindly, contain much about the instruments and furnishings of the scientific establishments and the methods of carrying on the work. She found Mr. Airy, at Greenwich, not favorable to the multiplication of observatories; and to his remark that he would gladly destroy one half of the meridian instruments of the world by way of reform, she replied that her reform movement would be to bring together the astronomers who had no instruments and the instruments which had no astronomers. At Greenwich she met Herr Struve, the famous astronomer of Pulkova, visiting England on a scientific mission—"a magnificent-looking fellow, very large and well proportioned; his great head is covered with white hair, his features are regular and handsome. When he is introduced to any one he thrusts both hands into the pockets of his pantaloons, and bows"; and he told her that it was not necessary for her to present her letters—he knew her without.

With the Airys she went to Cambridge and visited Whewell, of whom—"An Englishman is proud, a Cambridge man is the proudest of Englishmen, and Dr. Whewell the proudest of Cambridge men." He was very severe, even to discourtesy, on Americans, and imperious in manner; and escorted Miss Mitchell to church wearing "a long gown reaching nearly to his feet, of rich scarlet, and adorned with flowing ribbons," which did not match the robe but were nearly crimson. At Cambridge she met Mr. Adams, the English calculator of the place of Neptune, and Prof. Sedgwick, then an old man of seventy-four. She was cordially entertained by Sir John and Lady Herschel; visited Le Verrier at his home in Paris; and at Rome was called upon by Father Secchi, and was admitted to the observatory where Mrs. Somerville and the daughter of Sir John Herschel had been refused; that observatory for which the Papal Government furnishes nice machinery to keep the telescope accurately up with the motion of the earth on its axis; "the same motion for declaring whose existence Galileo suffered; the two hundred years have done their work." At Florence she called on Mrs. Somerville, who, though seventy-seven years old, looked twenty years younger and came tripping into the room, speaking at once with all the vivacity of a young person, was interested in every new improvement, as much at home in the drawing room as in science, and asked many questions in regard to the progress of science in America. At Berlin she saw Humboldt, who was much obliged to her for calling to see him, talked intelligently to her about current affairs in the United States, told her the latest news from home, and showed her Clinton, N. Y., on the map when she did not know where it was.

A few months after the death of Mrs. Mitchell, in 1861, the family removed to Lynn, Mass., where Miss Mitchell had bought property, to which she transferred her observatory, and where she remained until she was called, in 1865, to be Professor of Astronomy and Director of the Observatory at Vassar College. This involved a change of occupation, and one that would, to a certain extent, divert her attention from what had been her lifework of observing. "But she was so much interested in the movement for the higher education of women, an interest which deepened as her work went on, that she gave up in a measure her scientific life, and threw herself heart and soul into this work." She further, in the course of time, gave up her work on the Nautical Almanac, in order to devote herself more exclusively to this. In October, 1888, we find this entry in her diary: "Resolved, in case of my outliving father and being in good health, to give my efforts to the intellectual culture of women, without regard to salary; if possible, connect myself with liberal Christian institutions—believing, as I do, that happiness and growth in this life are best promoted by them, and that what is good in this life is good in any life." She had her own views about the way teaching should be done, and did not hesitate to express them. Thus: "Our faculty meetings always try me in this respect; we do things that other colleges have done before. We wait and ask for precedent. If the earth had waited for a precedent, it would never have turned on its axis!" She thought teachers were inclined to talk too much; that to read a book, to think it over, and to write out notes, was a useful exercise; that "the greatest object in educating is to give the right habit of study; . . . not too much mechanical apparatus, let the imagination have some play; a cube may be shown by a model, but let the drawing upon the blackboard represent the cube, and, if possible, let Nature be the blackboard; spread your triangles upon land and sky; . . . a small apparatus well used does wonders. . . . I find a helping hand lifts the girl as crutches do; she learns to like the help which is not self-help." The relation between herself and her pupils is described as having been very cordial and intimate, and she remarked to one of her classes entering upon its study for the last year, "We are women studying together." According to her own description of her teaching, her beginning class used a small portable equatorial, which stood out of doors from seven o'clock in the morning till nine o'clock in the evening. They were expected to determine the rotation of the sun upon its axis by watching the spots; "the same for the planet Jupiter." They determined the revolution of Titan by watching its motions, the retrograde and direct motion of the planets among the stars, the position of the sun with reference to its setting in winter and summer, and the phases of Venus. "All their book learning in astronomy should be mathematical. The astronomy which is not mathematical, in what is so ludicrously called ‘geography of the heavens,’ is not astronomy at all." The senior girls in practical astronomy were taught separately: to obtain the time for the college by the meridian passage of stars; to find a planet at any hour of the day; to make drawings of what they see, and to determine positions of planets and satellites; to determine differences of right ascension; to know the satellites of Saturn by their physiognomy, as if they were persons; and they sometimes measured diameters. She held the marking system in contempt, would not drill, and could not drive.

Miss Mitchell began to observe the various colors of the stars in 1853, but nothing in her remarks concerning the phenomenon indicates that she had any anticipation of the explanations which later astronomers have offered for it. Her appreciation of it was largely æsthetic, but, as Mr. Bishop had found the blue stars generally small, she thought we might assume "that the blue stars are faint ones, and probably distant ones. But as not all faint stars or distant ones are blue, it shows that there is a real difference. . . . From age to age the colors of some of the prominent stars have certainly changed. This would seem more likely to be from change of place than of physical constitution. Nothing comes out more clearly in astronomical observations than the immense activity of the universe. ‘All change, no loss, ’tis revolution all.’" Then she was led to remark that all observations of this kind are peculiarly adapted to women. "Indeed, all astronomical observing seems to be so fitted. The training of a girl fits her for delicate work. The touch of her fingers upon the delicate screws of an astronomical instrument might become wonderfully accurate in results; a woman's eyes are trained to nicety of color. . . . Then comes in the girl's habit of patient and quiet work, peculiarly fitted to routine observations. The girl who can stitch from morning to night would find two or three hours in the observatory a relief."

The chief scientific incident recorded of Miss Mitchell's second European tour (1873) is her visit to the observatory at Pulkova, where the second Struve—Otto—was director. Her Russian journal contains some keen comparative observations concerning civilization and education in Russia and the United States, not always to the advantage of the United States.

In 1859 Miss Mitchell was presented by the republic of San Marino with the bronze medal of merit, with the ribbon and letters patent signed by the two captains regent. In August, 1869, she went with several of her Vassar students to Burlington, Iowa, to observe the total eclipse of the sun, and published a popular article on the subject in the magazine Hours at Home. Her scientific record of the observation was published in Prof. Coffin's report. In 1878 she went to Denver to observe the eclipse. Her observing party of five ladies besides herself had their special places at the three telescopes as counters or as artists, and made the observations in silence. "Great," she says," is the self-denial of those who follow science. Those who look through telescopes at the time of a total eclipse are martyrs; they severely deny themselves. The persons who can say that they have seen a total eclipse of the sun are those who rely upon their eyes. My aids, who touched no glasses, had a season of rare enjoyment."

In June, 1881, while going to Providence in a steamboat, she caught her first view of a new comet from the stateroom window- She at once hurried back to Poughkeepsie to make her observations. An apple tree was in the way, and she had it cut down. Then a mist arose, and the observation had to be postponed. On account of the incident of the tree, the girls called her George Washington.

During her later years at Vassar, Miss Mitchell endeavored to raise a fund to endow the chair of astronomy. The fund was completed after her death, amounting to fifty thousand dollars, and is known as the Maria Mitchell Endowment Fund. It was her custom every year, in the week before commencement, to give her students a "dome party"—a breakfast—in the observatory, and these were most enjoyable occasions to all.

Miss Mitchell was chairman of the Standing Committee on Woman's Work in Science of the American Association for the Advancement of Women, and was for several years president of the association. "Some of her students did their first work for women's organizations in gathering statistics and filling out blanks which she distributed among them." She believed in the woman suffrage movement, but took no prominent part in it. She was the first woman elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Boston. She was chosen in 1859 a member of the American Philosophical Society; was for many years a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; was connected with the New England Women's Club and with Sorosis; and received degrees from Rutgers Fe. male College, Hanover College, and Columbia College. She contributed a paper on Mary Somerville to the Atlantic Monthly in 1860; articles, mostly on observations of Jupiter and Saturn, to the American Journal of Science; a few popular science papers in Hours at Home; and an article on The Herschels was printed in The Century just after her death. She also read a few lectures to small societies and to one or two girls' schools, "but she never allowed such outside work to interfere with her duties at Vassar College." She resigned her position in Vassar College, on account of growing infirmity, in January, 1888, after having, as she boasted, earned a salary, without any intermission, for more than fifty years. The trustees made her professor emeritus, and offered her a home in the observatory, but she preferred to spend the few remaining months of her life with her family in Lynn.

It is partly a result of Miss Mitchell's work that woman astronomers are now no longer regarded as something remarkable.