Wight Life

Astronomer Extraordinary

by Marjorie Rayment

IN THE OLD PARISH REGISTERS of Brighstone there can be seen, written in the flowery handwriting of the time, an entry recording the baptism, in 1686, of Richard Mitchell.

Drawing of Maria Mitchell

This child belonged to the Mitchell family who were tenants of a cottage in Moortown Lane, belonging to Waytescourt Manor. That cottage is still named 'Mitchells Cottage', though unoccupied by anyone of that name for many decades. In fact the family later left the Isle of Wight and emigrated to America. Richard Mitchell first lived in Rhode Island, but in 1731 his son Richard moved to Nantucket Island where he married a Mary Starbuck. 'Thence came the rightworthy Nantucket Mitchell family'.

Of that rightworthy family, the one, who from an unpretentious Quaker upbringing, became world-famous, was Marie Mitchell, the first recognised woman astronomer. Born in 1819 she was the fifth child of a family of nine. As her early years were spent in the then greatest whale port in the world, where its intrepid seamen had learned to rely on the stars for safe passage over unknown seas, this bright-eyed young girl soon learned to share her father's study of the stars.

William Mitchell was a natural teacher, and in Maria's early childhood earned a sparse livelihood in that profession. Much of Maria's later education was in the school which 'William the Teacher', as he was known, had built on Howard Street. He eagerly fostered her love of mathematics and astronomy, so that by her early teens she had become proficient in the intricacies of navigation, and was able to correct a chronometer as accurately as he.

In 1835 Maria opened her own little school, and in it proved her worth as a teacher. In this community of individualists and lovers of learning she had already gained a place for herself. So much so indeed, that at the age of 18 she was offered, and immediately accepted, the post of librarian of Nantucket's Atheneum. This post she was to hold for twenty years, and she came to know many of the famous men of the age who came to lecture there. Her salary for the first year was 60 dollars, 75 dollars the next, and 100 dollars thereafter.

In this same year William Mitchell was offered the position of cashier of the Pacific Bank, and the Mitchell family moved from the humble house in Vestal Street which had been Maria's birthplace, to the imposing brick building which housed the Bank in Main Street. On the roof of this house was the 'walk' which held their little brass telescope, and where father and daughter night after night, studied the heavens, often contending patiently with wind and cold and penetrating damp. For many years here Maria swept the skies, and here too it was, that on a clear October night in 1847 she discovered for herself the comet which was eventually to be named 'the 'Maria Mitchell' comet. For that discovery she was awarded a gold medal by the King of Denmark. Her reputation as an astronomer — the first American woman astronomer — was now established throughout the world. To this was added many honours by her own countrymen. In 1848 she was the first woman to be elected as member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 1850 she was the only woman ever to have been unanimously elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

But there was no false pride in Maria. Like other Nantucket women, many of them wives or widows of seafaring men, she was independent and self-reliant. Her austere Quaker upbringing made her truth-loving and outspoken. But she also had a saving sense of humour, loved children and all that was beautiful in her world as well as in the mysterious skies above. She loved the Inner Spirit of the Friends, but hated the restricting attitudes and stringent discipline imposed by them. Her way of life was 'to see, to know, and then to believe'. So in 1843 Maria had left the uncompromising faith of the Friends Meeting House, to attend, though never to join, the Unitarian Church.

The Atheneum was the centre of intellectual growth in the isolated island of Nantucket, and various learned societies flourished. There was the Philosophical Institute, with William Mitchell as President; and there was the Social Reading Society, used for discussion of contemporary works.

Such men as Ralph Waldo Emerson the American poet; Jean Agassiz, Swiss naturalist; and John Audubon and Henry David Thoreau, famous American naturalists, all came to expound their ideas.

Maria's thought deepened and broadened, and at last came the year 1857 which saw her setting out for Europe. England, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, gave all the usual tourist excitements, and stimulated her eagerness to assimilate all things strange and foreign. But most important of all, she was able to meet the greatest European scientists, and to visit the world's most famous observatories.

Photograph of Mitchell's house today

Home again in 1858, but, alas, she found her mother's health was rapidly failing. Her father too was ageing, and in 1861, soon after his wife's death, he resigned his position as Director of the Pacific Bank, and moved with Maria to a small house in the town of Lynn on the mainland. Here, equipped with her own small observatory, Maria looked forward to a life of quiet research.

For several years this quiet life continued, but Maria missed the stimulus of her life in the Atheneum. However, another stage of her life was shortly to begin. Matthew Vassar, a wealthy brewer of Poughkeepsie had founded there the Vassar Female College; and after several years of negotiation Maria Mitchell was appointed the first Director of the Vassar College Observatory. With her father she moved into their new home at the observatory in 1865. Then followed years of intensive work, instilling some of her loving faith in womens' ability and right to higher education, particularly in the sciences. She became President of the Association for the Advancement of Women. At this time there was a more flamboyant movement for gaining women's suffrage, but Maria held the more balanced belief that higher education was the primary need, after which women would be able fully to appreciate and use the right of suffrage.

The great work which Maria Mitchell did for the young women who came under her tutelage in Vassar during her twenty years there can never be forgotten in America. After her time, a young woman who went to college would no longer be considered a freak. In her faith in the power of science to create a better world, she said, —
'There will come with the greatest love of science, greater love of one another. Living more nearly to Nature is living farther from the world and its follies, but nearer to the world's people ....... We cannot see how impartially Nature gives of her riches to all, without loving all, and helping all; and if we cannot learn through Nature's laws the certainty of spiritual truths, we can at least learn to promote spiritual life while we are together and live in a trusting hope of greater growth in the future.'

photograph of Maria Mitchell plaque

So Maria Mitchell, 'sweeper in the sky', came to the end of her Vassar years with her faith in nature and science undimmed, and her belief in woman's ability to play a greater part in humanity's progress undiminished.

She retired an Christmas Day 1888 and returned to Lynn alone, for her beloved father had died in 1869. His last words to his devoted daughter were: 'Thee'll look for the comet tonight, will thee not, my child?' But, alas, after her retirement, Maria had little time left for further research. Her physical strength was fast fading, and only a few more months of life remained to her.

So passed a woman who was surely one of the most remarkable of astronomers, and a true lover of her fellow creatures.

And on the wall of a small house in Moortown Lane, Brighstone, still known as 'Mitchell's Cottage', is this unobtrusive plaque, donated in 1961 by the Mitchell family in the island of Nantucket:

Birthplace of Richard Mitchell in 1686
Settler on Nantucket Island,
Ancestor of Maria Mitchell,
First Woman Astronomer in America.