Vassar Yesterday

Vassar Yesterday

By Vassar Quarterly

In 1864, astronomer Maria Mitchell was the first professor hired by Matthew Vassar for his newly chartered women’s college. But this was not her first “first.”

The trailblazer had already become the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848 and the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1850. 

Mitchell urged her students to engage in direct observation, an approach that echoed her early astronomical training with her father on Nantucket Island. The professor led students and alumnae on expeditions to Burlington, Iowa, and Denver, Colorado, to view total solar eclipses at a time when men’s colleges seldom engaged science students in direct field experience.

On campus, Mitchell ensured her students made maximum use of the well-equipped Vassar Observatory, at all hours of the day and night. According to the Vassar Encyclopedia, the professor even roused her students from their sleep in the middle of the night to lead them to their posts in the observatory dome. During one such 1868 session to observe one of the great meteor showers of the nineteenth century, Mitchell and her students counted 3,800 meteors. Their skillfully recorded observations on this and other astronomical phenomena were published in the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac and Scientific Monthly.

Photographs: Vassar College Archives and Special Collections