One of the truly remarkable woman of the late 1800s who broke through many barriers for women was Maria Mitchell. She was a 19th-century astronomer and feminist who is best known for discovering a comet in 1847. Her discovery made her instantly famous and resulted in her being elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences — the only woman to have the honor until 1943.
In 1818, Maria Mitchell was born on the island of Nantucket, then a major whaling location in Massachusetts. Her father, William, was a major force in his daughter's education. He was a banker as well as a schoolteacher. He also maintained chronometers, which were devices that allowed ships to measure time even when moving or sailing in swinging temperatures and air pressures.
In 1857, Mitchell at last achieved her long-held dream of visiting Europe when she was invited to chaperone a banker's daughter there and to the American South. She made contact with several astronomers in Liverpool. She also received approval from astronomer, Angelo Sacchi, to see the Vatican Observatory after personally writing to him.
Mitchell and her father moved to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in 1865 when she became a professor of astronomy at Vassar College one of their first professors. She not only made strides for female astronomers when few women were working, but asked for — and received — the same salary as a male professor. This was a milestone for women. Vassar College had been founded in the 1860s, followed by other colleges for women. It was also a time when many felt that educating women in college was a dangerous experiment.
Maria was also named director of the Vassar College Observatory and was able to work there using a 12-inch telescope. At the time, it was the third-largest telescope in the United States. She continued her work with planetary and solar astronomy and co-founded the Association for the Advancement of Women, which helped to improve women's rights in the late 1800s.
She and her students also saw a total eclipse of the sun in Iowa in 1869.
Maria Mitchell inside Vassar College Obervatory-June 1878. Photograph by Henry Sherman Wyer, 1847-1920
In 1878, Maria and several of her former students traveled to Denver to view the 1878 total solar eclipse. Many felt learning about the eclipse itself was not her primary goal. Her expedition was intended as a proving ground for women. Five years earlier, a noted physician hypothesized that too much science education taxed female brains and atrophied their reproductive organs. She considered the notion ridiculous and intended to prove that women could be smart, possess strong abilities in science, and still be healthy and feminine.
Maria Mitchell's astronomy class
The late 1870s was an interesting time overall for science in the United States. The Europeans were leaders in scientific innovation, and blamed democratic government for the United States’ scientific deficiencies. A total eclipse on its soil was a perfect opportunity for the scientists in the United States to prove it could compete. The government offered to pay all expenses for several groups of male scientists to travel to the path of the eclipse.
After that, in spite of it being toward the end of her career, Maria Mitchell continued to push for women’s higher education and women in science. Still, in great part due to her efforts, a whole generation of female scientists followed in her footsteps, including those who were educated by her, and those who were educated by her former students.
Maria constructed an apparatus for making photographs of the sun and preserved the plate of the photographs in a closet in the observatory. It remained undiscovered until 1997 when it was found during housecleaning. The plate was labelled in her own handwriting. Her students used the Morse telegraphy instrument invented and given to them by Samuel F. B. Morse, a neighbor of the college and one of its original trustees."
Mitchell retired in 1888 and died a year later. An asteroid, 1455 Mitchella, discovered in 1937, was named after her, as was a lunar crater. The Maria Mitchell Association — which continues her commitment to education — was established in 2007.
In one of my earlier books, Mail Order Blythe, which was set mostly set in Rawlins, Wyoming Territory, I wrote about the 1878 total solar eclipse. In it, I mentioned the Draper Expedition which included famous inventor, Thomas Edison. My hero, Eli Morgan, was one of three university professors who came to Rawlins.
In my latest release, Figgy Pudding by Francine, Eli’s friend, Jason Sewell, is the hero. My heroine, Francine Mulder, views the same 1878 eclipse, but she does it in Denver, the same location where Miss Maria Mitchell and her all-female team of scientists observed the eclipse.
To find the book description and pre-order purchase link for Figgy Pudding by Francine, please CLICK HERE.