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Maria Mitchell: The Soul of an Astronomer

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  • Posted June 20, 2011

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    "We are women studying together" (Maria Mitchell, 1876)

    When she was 29 she discovered Comet 1847 VI (Comet MItchell). She was America's first professional female astronomer. There is a crater on the moon that bears her name. She was the first professor of astronomy and mathematics at newly formed Vassar Female College in Poughkeepsie, New York. "In 1848, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was the first woman to be so honored, and it would be almost a century before another woman was recognized by the Academy" (Ch. 5). *** Who was this prodigy? Why had I not heard of her before a recent tourist visit to Nantucket Island, Massachusetts? *** "In 1994, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York" (Ch. 11). *** ? Who was this formidable American scientific pioneer, distant cousin of Benjamin Franklin? *** She was Maria (pronounced mah-RYE-ah) Mitchell (1818 - 1869). She was born into a tightly knit Quaker community that dominated the economic and social life of Nantucket, at the time the whaling capital of the world. Her father taught her at a very young age mathematics-based astronomy and also how to repair ships' clocks to calculate longitude accurately. "For a chronometer only one second off would cause a ship to be a quarter mile off course" (Ch. 1). *** In time her religious thinking moved her away from Quaker to Unitarian theology. "The furthest Maria could go ... was to say to herself: 'There is a God and He is good ... I try to increase my trust in this, my only article of creed'" (Ch. 4). *** She was a pioneering champion of women's rights, a national leader, along with Louisa May Alcott, Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Julia Ward Howe. They all knew and worked with Maria Mitchell. *** She was also an early champion of schools and colleges for girls and women. Of hard schools teaching hard thinking. In 1864 a Boston Magazine thundered against the very idea of the proposed Vassar College. We don't crush our daughter by making her carry bricks up and down ladders all day. Similarly, we should not "impose on her brain the mental burden of these studies" (Ch. 9) To Miss Mitchell this was nonsense. Nor would she talk down to her women students. Astronomy is not star-gazing. "That knowledge which is popular is not scientific." Serious Americans must study mathematics deeply. And her girls did, many following her into pioneering scientific or medical work at Harvard or Johns Hopkins. Maria Mitchell asked nothing of her girls that she did not demand of herself: "We are women studying together" (Ch. 9) *** MARIA MITCHELL: THE SOUL OF AN ASTRONOMER is not an original work of scholarship. It draws on previous biographies of Professor Mitchell and on published recollections of her students at Vassar. Biographer Beatrice Gormley includes 16 pages of black and white photos and paintings. Also a topical Index and a small Bibliography. I am not sure how many of the 9 - 12 years olds for whom the book is written will choose to read more deeply into either astronomy or the life and times of the amazing Maria Mitchell. But for adults this book is worth reading. If you elect to read even more, then using materials offered by Beatrice Gormley can keep you busy for at least another three or four months. -OOO-

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