Class Notes & Profiles

Maria Mitchell: A Life in Journals and Letters

By Molly Geiger Schuchat '48

Henry Albers has been intrigued by Maria Mitchell, Vassar's first professor of astronomy, and the observatory-home built for her since he arrived at Vassar in 1958. Very early on, in a closet in the observatory, Alhers discovered glass photographs of the sun dating hack to the 1870s and made by Mitchell's students.

These whetted his appetite for other original material relating to the 19th-century American female scientist. He combed the Vassar archives and others in Nantucket (where she lived from birth in 1818 until coming to Vassar in 1865), the U.S., and Europe.

A well-traveled scientist, Mitchell was a loving and beloved teacher and a staunch proponent of women in science and society. She educated herself in science primarily because of her interest in mathematics and was self-supporting from the age of 18 until a her death in 1889. This was an extraordinary accomplishment for a 19th-century middle class woman, as was and her discovery in 1847 of the comet that now tin at bears her name.

The book consists of extensive diary excerpts covering Maria Mitchell's time in Nantucket, and then at Vassar, with explanatory and summary statements by Albers to cover the ellipses. The journals focus on her reactions to the world around her, with little concerning her personal life - although much is commented on regarding Julia Ward Howe and other persons she knew in various feminist and scientific societies.

Vassar alumnae/i may find the material about the early days of our college particularly fascinating. Entries and letters attest to Mitchell's continuous battles with the administrators and trustees over the disparity of salary between this famous American scientist and her fellow (male) faculty members at the college.

In 1882, Mitchell noted a lecturer's comments on the study of medicine by women that it would be better for the husband always to be superior to the wife. "Why?" she asked her diary. "And if so, does not it condemn the ablest women to a single life?"

Maria Mitchell had strong views about women's education and who should have it. She did not believe in scholarships to support the poor to attend college, since their home work was needed by their families. She wanted women to have the opportunity to progress but felt they needed to be in a position to take advantage of the opportunities made available by an institution like Vassar. A better way, she wrote to a friend after her retirement, "is co-education."

For travelers, Mitchell's reactions to a year in Europe before Vassar, to field trips with students to observe eclipses in the American West, and to a voyage to Russia all provide glimpses of the hardships as well as the pleasures of travel 150 years ago. This volume tells us not only about Maria Mitchell, but also about women's lives and how important our college has been in changing them. It includes illustrations, some showing small details about life at Vassar and in the observatory.

Edited by Henry Albers, Professor Emeritus of Astronomy a College Avenue Press, 2001