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"I wish to give to one sex ... the advantages too long monopolized by the other." (Matthew Vassar)

  • Jun 20, 2011


She was America's first woman to become a professional astronomer. She was Maria (pronounced mah-RYE-ah) Mitchell of Nantucket Island. Her fame was assured for something she did at age 29 on the night of October 1, 1847. Leaving a party, she went to her father's home observatory and gazed through a 4-inch telescope on loan from the U.S. Coastal Survey. She then discovered (two days before a competitor at the Vatican observatory) Comet 1847 VI, "Comet Mitchell." For this discovery, the King of Denmark awarded her a prestigious gold medal. "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).

In her mid 40s Maria Mitchell became the first Professor of Astronomy and Mathematics at brand new  Vassar Female College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Wealthy Poughkeepsie brewer Matthew Vassar had created this educational innovation for one reason: "I wish to give to one sex, he explained to his trustees, the advantages too long monopolized by the other" (Ch. 8). Miss Mitchell gave up a career as an independent practicing scientist in order to teach young women, which she did at Vassar from 1865 until, in 1888, ill health persuaded her to resign. She died in 1889.

Maria Mitchell, both in life and after death received many honors, and not just for her work as a scientist. There is a crater on the moon named for her. "In 1994, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York" (Ch. 11).

Is this enough information to make you want to learn more about Maria Mitchell? If so, begin with MARIA MITCHELL: THE SOUL OF AN ASTRONOMER by prolific children's writer Beatrice Gormley. The intended reading level is age 9 - 12. But the author does not "write down" and there is plenty for adults discovering America's first professional female astronomer. Maria Mitchell was a well-integrated person. She commanded her soul and set it in motion as a pioneer for women's  rights, especially to education in mathematics and hard science at a time when most thinkers thought that women did not have it in them to make a career based on brain work.

Maria Mitchell was born in 1818 on Nantucket Island in Massachusetts, whaling capital of the world, into a Quaker family when Quakers dominated the social and economic life of Nantucket. By age 12 she was virtual assistant to her beloved father William Mitchell -- husband of Lydia -- an ardent lover of and passionate teacher of astronomy.

William was not a great businessman but he used his astronomy, on the side, to adjust and correct ships' chronometers, vital for calculating longitude. Thus on February 19, 1831 Maria and William together observed, described and applied data gathered from an eclipse of the sun. After 1820 William Mitchell was frequently away from Nantucket and young Maria was the one who corrected ship captains' chronometers.

Maria Mitchell was raised Quaker, and benefitted from that sect's benign attitude toward women. But she was a lifelong religious "seeker" and her speculations moved steadily toward man-made, unrevealed, reason-based Unitarianism. Her enduring theological-philosophical passion was to prove or disprove the immortality of the human soul.

On an 1873 journey to Tsarist Russia, Maria Mitchell was received with honor at "the renowned observatory at Pulkovo, near St. Petersburg." She found a Russian government pouring money into science and research. "And she was amazed to learn that thousands of women were studying science in St. Petersburg. 'How many thousand women ... are studying science in the whole State of New York?' she wondered. 'I doubt if there are five hundred'" (Ch. 10).


Several of Professor Mitchell's Vassar students went on to become pioneering American women of science. Her message to all her students was this: "I cannot expect to make you astronomers, but I do expect that you will invigorate your minds by the effort at healthy modes of thinking. ... When we are chafed and fretted by small cares, a look at the stars will show us the littleness of our own interests'" (Ch. 11)

Biographer Beatrice Gormley lays out all her sources, starting with two older and larger biographies. She also offers a good topical Index and a short bibliography, as well as 16 pages of black and white reproductions of contemporary photographs and paintings. MARIA MITCHELL: THE SOUL OF AN ASTRONOMER is not nor is it intended to be the final word on America's first professional woman astronomer. But it is a fine first word for boys and girls and for men and women.


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June 28, 2011
I will give to my granddaughter Maria Killough on her 9th birthday (July 2) MARIA'S COMET by Deborah Hopkinson. Maybe MY Maria will grow up to be an astronomer, too! Patrick K/qigong bear
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(Thomas) Patrick Killough ()
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I am a retired American diplomat. Married for 47 years. My wife Mary (PhD in German and Linguistics) and I have two sons, six grandsons and two granddaughters. Our home is Highland Farms Retirement Community … more
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Grade 6-9?With a smoothly flowing and lively style, this biography introduces readers to the 19th-century astronomer. Well-chosen, primary-source quotations and quality black-and-white photos add authenticity to the text, and contribute greatly to the author's objective and comprehensive description of Mitchell's accomplishments. This is not a straightforward chronological biography. The first chapter sets the stage, describing Mitchell's native Nantucket; comments about her as a adult; and fills in facts about her childhood. Gormley then goes on to describe her subject's later life and career. A 16-page centerfold features black-and-white photos of Mitchell, her friends, family, and colleagues. Students who are researching women scientists, 19th-century astronomers, or the education and enlightenment of women will find this biography helpful.?Phyllis Graves, Creekwood Middle School, Kingwood, TX
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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ISBN-10: 0802850995
ISBN-13: 978-0802850997
Author: Beatrice Gormley
Publisher: Eerdmans Pub Co

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