Friday, August 2, 2013

Maria Mitchell...first American woman astronomer

August 1st, 2013...Google Doodle

From APS physics...

Maria Mitchell, the first female professional astronomer in the United States, became instantly famous in October 1847, when she was the first to discover and chart the orbit of a new comet, which became known as "Miss Mitchell's Comet."

Maria Mitchell was born in 1818 in a large Quaker family on Nantucket. Her father was a schoolteacher, and later worked for a bank. The Mitchells encouraged education for all their children, even girls, which was unusual at the time.

Astronomy was Mr. Mitchell's favorite subject. The family owned a small telescope, and all the children assisted their father with his observations. Maria, a quiet child, worked hard at her studies, especially astronomy, and enjoyed helping her father. She also enjoyed reading, as there were always many books in the house.

As a young woman, Mitchell worked briefly as a schoolteacher, then as a librarian at the Nantucket Atheneum, while still continuing her astronomical observations. Her father encouraged her, and through him, Mitchell was fortunate to be able to meet some of the country's most prominent scientists, though generally as a young woman she was shy and avoided company.

At the time, some comets had been found, but the discovery of a new one was still considered a significant achievement. King Frederick VI of Denmark had offered a prize for the discovery of each new comet.

Every chance she got, even if the family had company, if the night was clear, Mitchell would go to the roof of the house to “sweep the heavens,” using the family's 2-inch reflecting telescope.

On the evening of October 1, 1847, Mitchell slipped out of a party and went to the roof to begin her observations. She noticed a small blurry streak, invisible to the naked eye, but clear in the telescope, and she guessed at once that it might be a comet. Excited, she ran to tell her father. He wanted to announce the discovery right away, but she was more cautious. She recorded the object's position, and continued to observe it to be sure it was a comet. On October 3, Mitchell's father sent off a letter to Cambridge announcing the discovery.

It turned out others had seen the comet at about the same time. Father de Vico at Rome observed the same comet on October 3, and several other people observed the same object shortly after that. However, Mitchell's priority was recognized, and she received the medal from the King of Denmark.

This brought Mitchell immediate international fame, and further honors. In 1848, she was the first woman elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was also a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Mitchell was often bemused by all the attention she received as a scientist. She wrote in her diary after one scientific meeting, “It is really amusing to find one's self lionized in a city where one has visited quietly for years; to see the doors of fashionable mansions open wide to receive you, which never opened before. One does enjoy acting the part of greatness for a while! I was tired after three days of it, and glad to take the cars and run away.”
Mitchell made many other astronomical observations during her career, including observations of sunspots, comets, nebulae, stars, solar eclipses, and the moons of Saturn and Jupiter.

She always appreciated the night sky not just for the science but for its beauty, and she recorded this thought in her journal: “Feb. 12, 1855.... I swept around for comets about an hour, and then I amused myself with noticing the varieties of color. I wonder that I have so long been insensible to this charm in the skies, the tints of the different stars are so delicate in their variety.... What a pity that some of our manufacturers shouldn't be able to steal the secret of dyestuffs from the stars.”

In 1865 Mitchell became a faculty member at Vassar College, making her the first female astronomy professor in the United States. She was also appointed director of Vassar College Observatory.

With her students, Mitchell emphasized the importance of observation, and was known for asking them, “did you learn that from a book or did you observe it yourself?” Exemplifying this philosophy, she went to great lengths to observe things herself. In 1878, she and several students traveled two thousand miles to Colorado to witness a total solar eclipse.

In addition to her scientific work, Mitchell was also active in opposing slavery and in advocating for women's rights. She believed that women's minds were too often wasted when they were forced to spend their time sewing rather than pursuing intellectual activities.

Maria Mitchell died on June 28, 1889. Although she is relatively unknown today, perhaps because her scientific accomplishments may not seem as impressive to us as they did to her contemporaries, she was well-known and respected in her day. As the first American woman astronomer and an advocate for women, she paved the way for others. The Maria Mitchell Observatory on Nantucket is named after her, as is the Mitchell crater on the moon.

From Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography by JoAnn Macdonald...

Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818-June 28, 1889), the first American woman astronomer, was the first professor of Astronomy at Vassar College and the first director of Vassar's observatory. Honored internationally, she was one of the most celebrated American scientists of the 19th century.

Maria (Ma-RYE-ah) was the third of ten children born to Quakers Lydia Coleman and William Mitchell on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. William Mitchell, an amateur astronomer, shared with his children what he considered to be the evidence of God in the natural world. Only Maria was interested enough to learn the mathematics of astronomy. At age 12 Maria counted the seconds for her father while they observed a lunar eclipse. At 14 she could adjust a ship's chronometer, a valuable skill in a whaling port. She preferred to stand on the roof searching the skies to gathering with the family or friends in the parlor.

Maria's easy-going father was her best teacher in her younger years. Later she attended Cyrus Peirce's School for Young Ladies. Hard-working as a student, she later modestly claimed, "I was born of only ordinary capacity, but of extraordinary persistency." Having made the most of her own limited opportunities for schooling, she worked for a while at the Pierce School, and then operated her own school, 1835-36.

In 1836 Mitchell was hired as librarian at the new Nantucket Atheneum. With the books of the Atheneum at her disposal Mitchell pursued her studies in languages, mathematics, and navigation. Meanwhile, she and her father made observations of the stars to assist in navigational timekeeping and surveyed the coast of Nantucket. Her discovery of comet Mitchell 1847VI on the night of October 1, 1847, led to international recognition, contacts with the community of American astronomers, and employment doing calculations for the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac.

Although they cherished the peacefulness and simplicity of the Friends, the Mitchell family had long chafed under the puritanical Nantucket Quaker discipline. In her mid-twenties Mitchell began to question Quaker teachings. In 1843 she was interviewed by two women from her congregation. They recorded, "We have attended to our appointment in the case of Maria Mitchell. She informed us that her mind was not settled on religious subjects, and that she had no wish to retain her right in membership. We submit the case to the Monthly Meeting believing further labour to be unavailing." She was accordingly disowned from membership. Afterwards, until she left Nantucket more than two decades later, she attended the Unitarian church, although she never became a member.

In her work at the Nantucket Atheneum, Mitchell encountered opinionated readers who insisted on engaging her in conversations about theology, in which she had no interest. "How much talk there is about religion!" she recorded in her diary. "Yesterday I had a Shaker visitor and a Catholic and the more I hear, the less do I care about church doctrines." This did not however mean that Mitchell had no interest in God. "There is a God, and he is good," she confided to her diary. "I try to increase my trust in this, my only article of creed." After the deaths of three of her closest friends in 1855, and during her mother's illness, she wrote, "What a change a fortnight has made. I have passed through a fortnight of great anxiety in nursing my Mother. I have never been a believer in a special Providence, but when I saw her recovering I felt like giving thanks to God and when anyone says to me 'how is your mother,' I felt like saying 'Better, thank God' instead of thank you. . . . I would have been glad to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to offer up on the holy sepulcher my thanks."

Mitchell attended the Lyceum lectures at the Atheneum and met, amongst others, Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, William Agassiz, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lucy Stone, William Ellery Channing, Horace Greeley and Theodore Parker. A few, including Emerson, she invited to view the skies from her rooftop observatory.

In 1857 she accepted an offer from Gen. H. K. Swift, a Chicago banker, to accompany his daughter Prudence on a trip through the American West and South and to Europe. In Meadville, Pennsylvania she visited her sister Phebe and Phebe's husband Joshua Kendall, who taught at the Meadville Seminary. She observed, in their progress, differences of culture between the northern and southern states. She witnessed slavery first-hand and learned of the constraints affecting white women in the South. For the Grand Tour of Europe Mitchell carried letters of introduction to leading scientists, most of whom were delighted to meet the American woman astronomer who had found a comet. She was shown the observatories in Greenwich, Cambridge, and, after some difficulty with papal authorities who were reluctant to allow a woman to enter, the Vatican Observatory. Of the latter visit she later commented, "I did not know that my heretic feet must not enter the sanctuary, that my woman's robe must not brush the seats of learning."

Matthew Vassar, who had established Vassar Female College in 1861 as "the first U.S. college exclusively for women-based on the principle that women should receive the same education, with the same standards, as that offered in men's colleges," insisted that women, in a women's college, should be educated by women instructors. After several years delay due to opposition to women in the faculty within Vassar's board of trustees, Mitchell was appointed Professor of Astronomy. She taught there from 1865 to 1888.

Mitchell was an advocate in the Woman's Rights movement. The notable women of that movement, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and Susan B. Anthony, were her friends and compatriots in the struggle for equality in professions and reforms in education and health issues for women. Mitchell encouraged her students to think of themselves as professional women. She asked, "How many pulpits are open to women?" And, "Do you know of any case in which a boys' college has offered a Professorship to a woman? Until you do, it is absurd to say that the highest learning is within the reach of American women."
"For women, there are undoubtedly great difficulties in the path, but so much the more to overcome," Mitchell told her students. "First, no woman should say, 'I am but a woman.' But a woman! What more can you ask to be? Born a woman, born with the average brain of humanity, born with more than the average heart, if you are mortal what higher destiny could you have? No matter where you are nor what you are, you are a power. Your influence is incalculable."
At Vassar Mitchell was pressured to attend the college chapel, which was served by preachers of various denominations. She disliked sermons that did not touch the heart. Once, when the service interfered with her observation of Saturn, she asked the President to shorten his prayer. Baptist members of the trustees tried to have her dismissed. Her principal foe, trustee Nathan Bishop, called her a "rank Theodore Parker Unitarian." She had a simple faith in both God and in science. After hearing a Universalist minister preach on the dangers of science, she wrote, "Scientific investigations, pushed on and on, will reveal new ways in which God works, and bring us deeper revelations of the wholly unknown." She believed that the revelations of the Bible and understanding of nature through science not in conflict. "If they seem to be," she said, "it is because you do not understand one or the other."
Mitchell was the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1848; the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1850; and the American Philosophical Society, 1869. She was a founder and an early president of the American Association for the Advancement of Women, 1873. She was awarded medals by Denmark, 1848, and San Marino, 1859. In 1887 Columbia College (now University) bestowed upon her the honorary degree LL.D., Dr. of Science and Philosophy.

At her funeral on Nantucket Island, Vassar President James Monroe Taylor said, "If I were to select for comment the one most striking trait of her character, I should name her genuineness. There was no false note in Maria Mitchell's thinking or utterance. Doubt she might and she might linger in doubt, but false she could not be . . . This genuineness explains also a marked feature of her religious experience. She would not use the language of faith often because it did not seem to her that she had clearly grasped the truths which came through faith. It would be a grave error to infer from this that she was not a religious woman in a true sense. She was always a seeker of truth . . . she fulfilled the exhortation of her friend Dr. Channing, 'Worship God with what He most delights in, with aspiration for spiritual light and life.'"

Letters and other papers of Maria Mitchell are held by the Maria Mitchell Society of Nantucket and in the Vassar College Special Collections in Poughkeepsie, New York. Some letters and diaries are printed in Phebe Mitchell Kendall, Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters, and Journals (1896) and Henry Albers, ed., Maria Mitchell, A Life in Journals and Letters (2001). Biographies include Helen Wright, Sweeper in the Sky (1950), Beatrice Gormley, Maria Mitchell, The Soul of an Astronomer (1995). There is an entry by Sally Gregory Kohlstedt in American National Biography (1999). A major new biography of Mitchell by Margaret Moore Booker, sponsored by the Maria Mitchell Society, will be released in the near future.

Maria Mitchell [Wikipedia]

Thanks to POSP stringer Tim.

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