Teen Skepchick Interviews, Old Timey Edition: Maria Mitchell
This post is part of the Teen Skepchick Interviews series, where TS writers talk with amazing scientists and skeptics about life, the universe, and everything.
This week, we’re traveling back in time to “talk” with Maria Mitchell (1818-1889), the first female professional astronomer in the United States. In October 1847, she discovered comet C/1847 T1, which was named after her (Miss Mitchell’s Comet). She was the first woman elected to various organizations, including the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Philosophical Society.
As the first professor of astronomy at Vassar College, she was an active proponent of higher education for women and other women’s rights issues. She founded and was president of the American Association for the Advancement of Women, and she hosted lecturers on politics and science in the dome of the Vassar observatory.
This week, she talks with us about how she got into astronomy when she was growing up, her thoughts on religion, her run-in with the Vatican, and her advice for young women scientists.
Were you interested in astronomy when you were growing up?
Oh, yes. My father was an astronomer, and he encouraged me to help him with his observations and calculations. He encouraged all of us, actually—I had nine brothers and sisters—but I was the only one who was really interested. When I was about twelve, my father and I observed an eclipse and I helped with calculating the time. Later I helped with measuring star locations.
I was rather shy, honestly. I often slipped up to the roof during parties. I just preferred looking at the sky to making polite small talk.
So your father didn’t have a problem with you doing all of this even though you were a girl?
Not at all. We were Quakers. We believed in equality, so my parents encouraged all of us to get an education. I was very good at math. In fact, I was teaching when I was sixteen, and I ran my own school for about a year when I was seventeen, until I was offered a position as a librarian. I couldn’t pass that up. All those books at my disposal!
How did you discover the comet? Was it with your father’s telescope?
Yes, I was on the roof, and by this time, I had pretty much memorized the sky, so this odd white blur stood out to me when I was looking through the telescope. It was pretty exciting. My father wanted to announce the discovery right away but I wanted to observe it more first, just to make sure it really was a comet. So I recorded the position, and when I saw it had moved the next evening, I knew!
After that, I was actually rather famous. The king of Denmark gave me a medal for the discovery. It was a prize he gave out to every first discoverer of a telescopic comet, so I wasn’t the only one ever to get one, but it was pretty amazing, especially as a woman. After that, I met all kinds of scientists, and eventually got job offers. Doing calculations for the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac, then Vassar.
So you’ve had a comet named after you and a moon crater?
A moon crater?
Yeah, about forty-five years after you—um, never mind.
After I . . . ? Oh.
So . . . Vassar. Must have been awesome.
Vassar was wonderful. This brand new college for women, with a marvelous observatory, and believe me, my students did real science—original published research. I would get everyone up in the middle of the night to make observations from the dome or the roof. We also traveled a bit to research such things as eclipses. It was a very exciting time.
I hear you had some wild parties in that dome.
[Nineteenth-century equivalent of LOLZ] We did have an annual party, yes, but we also had lectures and discussions, particularly on women’s rights, suffragette meetings, that sort of thing. Tell me, in the future, do women have the right to vote?
Yes, thanks to women like you. [We high five] What are your favorite planets?
Jupiter and Saturn. I mean, I love them all, and I’ve studied Venus extensively too, but Jupiter and Saturn have always had a special place in my heart. I studied the sun as well. All the stars, but I built a contraption for taking photographs of the sun’s surface. We had a marvelous 12-inch telescope at Vassar, third largest in the United States at the time. The most amazing gift I’ve ever received.
It was a gift?
Yes. I had just gotten back from the Vatican. I’d wanted to see their observatory, and they weren’t even going to let me in at all. I pushed for permission and finally got it, but only to go in during the day. *I did not know that my heretic feet must not enter the sanctuary, that my woman’s robe must not brush the seats of learning.*
When I returned home, I was given the telescope. It was purchased with money collected by women, in honor of my being the first woman astronomer in the country.
So you considered yourself a heretic? In the eyes of the Catholic Church or in general?
You know, I went through a period in my mid-twenties when I began to doubt the Quaker faith, and religion in general, really. I was actually disowned by my church after telling them I just hadn’t made up my mind. I went to a Unitarian church for a while. I do believe in God, but I didn’t really care that much about religion or church doctrine.
Do you have any advice for young women interested in science?
Aside from not letting anyone discourage them from pursuing it, from getting an education, I will tell you what I always asked my students: “Did you learn that from a book or did you observe it yourself?” Observation, observation, observation. Science is something you do. Get out there and do it.
*Mitchell’s actual words.
Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters, and Journals
“Maria Mitchell,” Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography
“Maria Mitchell,” Women in History
“Maria Mitchell,” Vassar Encyclopedia
The Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association
Gormley, Beatrice. Maria Mitchell: The Soul of an Astronomer. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1995.
McPherson, Stephanie Sammartino. Rooftop Astronomer. Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda Books, 1990.
Morgan, Helen L. Maria Mitchell: First Lady of American Astronomy. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977.
Wright, Helen. Sweeper in the Sky: The Life of Maria Mitchell, First Woman Astronomer in America. New York: Macmillan, 1949.