Celebrating The Legacy Of Maria Mitchell, Nantucket’s Famed Astronomer

Jul 30, 2018

Maria Mitchell and her father William used to observe the skies together through this telescope.
Credit Brian Morris/WCAI

This week marks the 200th birthday of Maria Mitchell, the noted astronomer who started her career on Nantucket.

Maria was born in 1818 - one of 10 children. At the time, most girls received little or no formal schooling. But Maria’s father William, a Quaker, believed that girls and boys should be educated equally.

William Mitchell was an amateur astronomer, and he taught Maria a lot of what he knew, and they used to scan the skies together at night.

“When she was 12, she actually helped her father observe a total solar eclipse,” said Dr. Regina Jorgenson, Director of Astronomy at the Maria Mitchell Association.

Regina Jorgenson, Director of Astronomy at the Maria Mitchell Association on Nantucket.
Credit Brian Morris/WCAI

One night Maria was scanning the skies, and saw something she hadn’t seen before.

“She recognized it to be a comet. She told her father and they immediately wrote a letter to their colleagues at the Harvard College Observatory,” said Jorgenson. “However, a storm came up on the island, and the letter didn’t go off for several days, and in the meantime somebody in Europe discovered the same comet. Eventually, after about a year of back-and-forth, they were able to show that it was Maria who had actually discovered the comet first. And so she was awarded this gold medal, and along with it came a lot of fame.”

Maria became the first woman professor of astronomy at Vassar College, and spent the rest of her career teaching physics and astronomy to women.

“She didn’t like lecturing to her students. She preferred to have them learn by doing – so just start doing some research and figure it out,” said Jorgenson.

Exterior of the Maria Mitchell Observatory.
Credit Brian Morris/WCAI

Maria Mitchell died in 1889. In 1902, a group of her friends, students and relatives founded the Maria Mitchell Association to honor her legacy. The Association has grown up around Maria’s birth house, and encompasses a research center, administrative offices, residences for visiting astronomers, and an observatory. The birth house today remains largely unchanged from Mitchell’s time - the telescope through which a 12-year old Maria observed the solar eclipse still sits in the from room.

“There were 10 children in all – 6 girls and 4 boys. She was the 3rd oldest,” said Jason Leonardo Finger, curator of the Maria Mitchell birth house. “Her father, after this kitchen was added on, he took out a 2nd staircase the family had, and he made a little study for his children, most often used by Maria. That’s where she hid away to do all her calculations.”

Jason Leonardo Finger is Curator of the Maria Mitchell birth house on Vestal Street.
Credit Brian Morris/WCAI

The study is little more than a tiny alcove at the end of the 2nd floor hall, just big enough for one person to sit. There’s a chronometer, and a small book open to a page with astronomical charts and drawings. It’s as if Maria went out for a walk, and might be back any minute to resume her studies.

Along with her serious commitment to science and learning, Maria Mitchell also had a lighter side.

A corner of Maria Mitchell's study.
Credit Brian Morris/WCAI

“She had a great sense of humor. She was quite clever. She was creative. And every year at the end of the school year, she hosted 'dome parties' for her students, in which she would serve “celestial refreshments,” and she would have them all come together and they would write rhymes about one another, and they’d write rhymes about her. But the best was that she wrote rhymes about all of them,” Finger said.

Today, Maria’s philosophy lives on at the Maria Mitchell Association. Visiting astronomers spend the summer doing research through a program funded by the National Science Foundation. There are about 30 summer interns as well.

“I think she would love all the activity. I mean, it’s so vibrant and active, and everybody is interested in education and educating people and doing science and in learning about the natural world,” said Jorgenson.