[Illustration: MARIA MITCHELL.]
In the quiet, picturesque island of Nantucket, in a simple home, lived
William and Lydia Mitchell with their family of ten children. William
had been a school-teacher, beginning when he was eighteen years of
age, and receiving two dollars a week in winter, while in summer he
kept soul and body together by working on a small farm, and fishing.
In this impecunious condition he had fallen in love with and married
Lydia Coleman, a true-hearted Quaker girl, a descendant of Benjamin
Franklin, one singularly fitted to help him make his way in life. She
was quick, intelligent, and attractive in her usual dress of white,
and was the clerk of the Friends' meeting where he attended. She
was enthusiastic in reading, becoming librarian successively of two
circulating libraries, till she had read every book upon the
shelves, and then in the evenings repeating what she had read to her
associates, her young lover among them.
When they were married, they had nothing but warm hearts and willing
hands to work together. After a time William joined his father in
converting a ship-load of whale oil into soap, and then a little
money was made; but at the end of seven years he went back to
school-teaching because he loved the work. At first he had charge of
a fine grammar school established at Nantucket, and later, of a school
of his own.
Into this school came his third child, Maria, shy and retiring, with
all her mother's love of reading. Faithful at home, with, as she says,
"an endless washing of dishes," not to be wondered at where there were
ten little folks, she was not less faithful at school. The teacher
could not help seeing that his little daughter had a mind which would
well repay all the time he could spend upon it.
While he was a good school-teacher, he was an equally good student of
nature, born with a love of the heavens above him. When eight years
old, his father called him to the door to look at the planet Saturn,
and from that time the boy calculated his age from the position of
the planet, year by year. Always striving to improve himself, when he
became a man, he built a small observatory upon his own land, that he
might study the stars. He was thus enabled to earn one hundred dollars
a year in the work of the United States Coast Survey. Teaching at
two dollars a week, and fishing, could not always cramp a man of such
Brought up beside the sea, he was as broad as the sea in his thought
and true nobility of character. He could see no reason why his
daughters should not be just as well educated as his sons. He
therefore taught Maria the same as his boys, giving her especial drill
in navigation. Perhaps it is not strange that after such teaching,
his daughter could have no taste for making worsted work or Kensington
stitches. She often says to this day, "A woman might be learning seven
languages while she is learning fancy work," and there is little doubt
that the seven languages would make her seven times more valuable as
a wife and mother. If teaching navigation to girls would give us
a thousand Maria Mitchells in this country, by all means let it be
Maria left the public school at sixteen, and for a year attended a
private school; then, loving mathematics, and being deeply interested
in her father's studies, she became at seventeen his helper in the
work of the Coast Survey. This astronomical labor brought Professors
Agassiz, Bache, and other noted men to the quiet Mitchell home, and
thus the girl heard the stimulating conversation of superior minds.
But the family needed more money. Though Mr. Mitchell wrote articles
for _Silliman's Journal_, and delivered an able course of lectures
before a Boston society of which Daniel Webster was president,
scientific study did not put many dollars in a man's pocket. An elder
sister was earning three hundred dollars yearly by teaching, and Maria
felt that she too must help more largely to share the family burdens.
She was offered the position of librarian at the Nantucket library,
with a salary of sixty dollars the first year, and seventy-five the
second. While a dollar and twenty cents a week seemed very little,
there would be much time for study, for the small island did not
afford a continuous stream of readers. She accepted the position,
and for twenty years, till youth had been lost in middle life, Maria
Mitchell worked for one hundred dollars a year, studying on, that she
might do her noble work in the world.
Did not she who loved nature, long for the open air and the blue sky,
and for some days of leisure which so many girls thoughtlessly waste?
Yes, doubtless. However, the laws of life are as rigid as mathematics.
A person cannot idle away the hours and come to prominence. No great
singer, no great artist, no great scientist, comes to honor without
continuous labor. Society devotees are heard of only for a day or a
year, while those who develop minds and ennoble hearts have lasting
Miss Mitchell says, "I was born of only ordinary capacity, but of
extraordinary persistency," and herein is the secret of a great life.
She did not dabble in French or music or painting and give it up; she
went steadily on to success. Did she neglect home duties? Never. She
knit stockings a yard long for her aged father till his death, usually
studying while she knit. To those who learn to be industrious early in
life, idleness is never enjoyable.
There was another secret of Miss Mitchell's success. She read good
books early in life. She says: "We always had books, and were bookish
people. There was a public library in Nantucket before I was born.
It was not a free library, but we always paid the subscription of
one dollar per annum, and always read and studied from it. I remember
among its volumes Hannah More's books and Rollin's _Ancient History_.
I remember too that Charles Folger, the present Secretary of the
Treasury, and I had both read this latter work through before we were
ten years old, though neither of us spoke of it to the other until a
All this study had made Miss Mitchell a superior woman. It was not
strange, therefore, that fame should come to her. One autumn night,
October, 1847, she was gazing through the telescope, as usual, when,
lo! she was startled to perceive an unknown comet. She at once told
her father, who thus wrote to Professor William C. Bond, director of
the Observatory at Cambridge: --
MY DEAR FRIEND,--I write now merely to say that
Maria discovered a telescopic comet at half-past ten on
the evening of the first instant, at that hour nearly above
Polaris five degrees. Last evening it had advanced
westerly; this evening still further, and nearing the pole.
It does not bear illumination. Maria has obtained its
right ascension and declination, and will not suffer me to
announce it. Pray tell me whether it is one of Georgi's,
and whether it has been seen by anybody. Maria supposes
it may be an old story. If quite convenient, just
drop a line to her; it will oblige me much. I expect to
leave home in a day or two, and shall be in Boston next
week, and I would like to have her hear from you before I
can meet you. I hope it will not give thee much trouble
amidst thy close engagements. Our regards are to all of
you most truly.
The answer showed that Miss Mitchell had indeed made a new discovery.
Frederick VI., King of Denmark, had, sixteen years before, offered a
gold medal of the value of twenty ducats to whoever should discover
a telescopic comet. That no mistake might be made as to the real
discoverer, the condition was made that word be sent at once to the
Astronomer Royal of England. This the Mitchells had not done,
on account of their isolated position. Hon. Edward Everett, then
President of Harvard College, wrote to the American Minister at the
Danish Court, who in turn presented the evidence to the King. "It
would gratify me," said Mr. Mitchell, "that this generous monarch
should know that there is a love of science even in this, to him,
remote corner of the earth."
The medal was at last awarded, and the woman astronomer of Nantucket
found herself in the scientific journals and in the press as the
discoverer of "Miss Mitchell's Comet." Another had been added to the
list of Mary Somervilles and Caroline Herschels. Perhaps there was
additional zest now in the mathematical work in the Coast Survey. She
also assisted in compiling the _American Nautical Almanac_, and wrote
for the scientific periodicals. Did she break down from her unusual
brain work? Oh, no! Probably astronomical work was not nearly so hard
as her mother's,--the care of a house and ten children!
For ten years more Miss Mitchell worked in the library, and in
studying the heavens. But she had longed to see the observatories of
Europe, and the great minds outside their quiet island. Therefore,
in 1857, she visited England, and was at once welcomed to the most
learned circles. Brains always find open doors. Had she been rich or
beautiful simply, Sir John Herschel, and Lady Herschell as well, would
not have reached out both hands, and said, "You are always welcome at
this house," and given her some of his own calculations? and some of
his Aunt Caroline's writing. Had she been rich or handsome simply,
Alexander Von Humboldt would not have taken her to his home, and,
seating himself beside her on the sofa, talked, as she says, "on
all manner of subjects, and on all varieties of people. He spoke of
Kansas, India, China, observatories; of Bache, Maury, Gould, Ticknor,
Buchanan, Jefferson, Hamilton, Brunow, Peters, Encke, Airy, Leverrier,
Mrs. Somerville, and a host of others."
What, if he had said these things to some women who go abroad! It is
safe for women who travel to read widely, for ignorance is quickly
detected. Miss Mitchell said of Humboldt: "He is handsome--his hair
is thin and white, his eyes very blue. He is a little deaf, and so is
Mrs. Somerville. He asked me what instruments I had, and what I was
doing; and when I told him that I was interested in the variable
stars, he said I must go to Bonn and see Agelander."
There was no end of courtesies to the scholarly woman. Professor
Adams, of Cambridge, who, with his charming wife, years afterward
helped to make our own visit to the University a delight, showed
her the spot on which he made his computations for Neptune, which
he discovered at the same time as Leverrier. Sir George Airy, the
Astronomer Royal of England, wrote to Leverrier in Paris to announce
her coming. When they met, she said, "His English was worse than my
Later she visited Florence, where she met, several times, Mrs.
Somerville, who, she says, "talks with all the readiness and clearness
of a man," and is still "very gentle and womanly, without the least
pretence or the least coldness." She gave Miss Mitchell two of her
books, and desired a photographed star sent to Florence. "She had
never heard of its being done, and saw at once the importance of such
a step." She said with her Scotch accent, "Miss Mitchell, ye have done
yeself great credit."
In Rome she saw much of the Hawthornes, of Miss Bremer, who was
visiting there, and of the artists. From here she went to Venice,
Vienna, and Berlin, where she met Encke, the astronomer, who took her
to see the wedding presents of the Princess Royal.
Mrs. Julia Ward Howe, in an admirable sketch of Miss Mitchell, tells
how the practical woman, with her love of republican institutions,
was impressed. "The presents were in two rooms," says Miss Mitchell,
"ticketed and numbered, and a catalogue of them sold. All the
manufacturing companies availed themselves of the opportunity to
advertise their commodities, I suppose, as she had presents of all
kinds. What she will do with sixty albums I can't see, but I can
understand the use of two clothes-lines, because she can lend one to
her mother, who must have a large Monday's wash!"
After a year, Miss Mitchell returned to her simple Nantucket home,
as devoted to her parents and her scientific work as ever. Two years
afterward, in 1860, her good mother died, and a year later, desiring
to be near Boston, the family removed to Lynn. Here Miss Mitchell
purchased a small house for sixteen hundred and fifty dollars. From
her yearly salary of one hundred dollars, and what she could earn
in her government work, she had saved enough to buy a home for
her father! The rule is that the fathers wear themselves out for
daughters; the rule was reversed in this case.
Miss Mitchell now earned five hundred dollars yearly for her
government computations, while her father received a pension of three
hundred more for his efficient services. Five years thus passed
quietly and comfortably.
Meanwhile another life was carrying out its cherished plan, and Miss
Mitchell, unknowingly, was to have an important part in it. Soon
after the Revolutionary War there came to this country an English
wool-grower and his family, and settled on a little farm near the
Hudson River. The mother, a hard-working and intelligent woman,
was eager in her help toward earning a living, and would drive the
farm-wagon to market, with butter and eggs, and fowls, while her
seven-year-old boy sat beside her. To increase the income some English
ale was brewed. The lad grew up with an aversion to making beer, and
when fourteen, his father insisting that he should enter the business,
his mother helped him to run away. Tying all his worldly possessions,
a shirt and pair of stockings, in a cotton handkerchief, the mother
and her boy walked eight miles below Poughkeepsie, when, giving him
all the money she had, seventy-five cents, she kissed him, and with
tears in her eyes saw him cross the ferry and land safely on the other
side. He trudged on till a place was found in a country store, and
here, for five years, he worked honestly and industriously, coming
home to his now reconciled father with one hundred and fifty dollars
in his pocket.
Changes had taken place. The father's brewery had burned, the oldest
son had been killed in attempting to save something from the wreck,
all were poorer than ever, and there seemed nothing before the boy of
nineteen but to help support the parents, his two unmarried sisters,
and two younger brothers. Whether he had the old dislike for the ale
business or not, he saw therein a means of support, and adopted
it. The world had not then thought so much about the misery which
intoxicants cause, and had not learned that we are better off without
stimulants than with them.
Every day the young man worked in his brewery, and in the evening till
midnight tended a small oyster house, which he had opened. Two years
later, an Englishman who had seen Matthew Vassar's untiring industry
and honesty, offered to furnish all the capital which he needed. The
long, hard road of poverty had opened at last into a field of plenty.
Henceforward, while there was to be work and economy, there was to be
continued prosperity, and finally, great wealth.
Realizing his lack of early education, he began to improve himself by
reading science, art, history, poetry, and the Bible. He travelled in
Europe, and being a close observer, was a constant learner.
One day, standing by the great London hospital, built by Thomas Guy,
a relative, and endowed by him with over a million dollars, Mr. Vassar
read these words on the pedestal of the bronze statue:--
SOLE FOUNDER OF THE HOSPITAL.
IN HIS LIFETIME.
The last three words left a deep impression on his mind. He had no
children. He desired to leave his money where it would be of permanent
value to the world. He debated many plans in his own mind. It is
said that his niece, a hard-working teacher, Lydia Booth, finally
influenced him to his grand decision.
There was no real college for women in the land. He talked the matter
over with his friends, but they were full of discouragements. "Women
will never desire college training," said some. "They will be ruined
in health, if they attempt it," said others. "Science is not needed
by women; classical education is not needed; they must have something
appropriate to their sphere," was constantly reiterated. Some wise
heads thought they knew just what that education should be, and just
what were the limits of woman's sphere; but Matthew Vassar had his own
Calling together, Feb. 26, 1861, some twenty or thirty of the men in
the State most conversant with educational matters, the white-haired
man, now nearly seventy, laid his hand upon a round tin box, labelled
"Vassar College Papers," containing four hundred thousand dollars in
bonds and securities, and said: "It has long been my desire, after
suitably providing for those of my kindred who have claims upon me,
to make such a disposition of my means as should best honor God and
benefit my fellow-men. At different periods I have regarded various
plans with favor; but these have all been dismissed one after another,
until the subject of erecting and endowing a college for the education
of young women was presented for my consideration. The novelty,
grandeur, and benignity of the idea arrested my attention.
"It occurred to me that woman, having received from the Creator the
same intellectual constitution as man, has the same right as man to
intellectual culture and development.
"I considered that the mothers of a country mould its citizens,
determine its institutions, and shape its destiny.
"It has also seemed to me that if woman was properly educated, some
new avenues of useful and honorable employment, in entire harmony with
the gentleness and modesty of her sex, might be opened to her.
"It further appeared, there is not in our country, there is not in
the world, so far as known, a single fully endowed institution for
the education of women.... I have come to the conclusion that the
establishment and endowment of a COLLEGE FOR THE EDUCATION OF YOUNG
WOMEN is a work which will satisfy my highest aspirations, and will
be, under God, a rich blessing to this city and State, to our country
and the world.
"It is my hope to be the instrument in the hands of Providence, of
founding and perpetuating an institution _which shall accomplish for
young women what our colleges are accomplishing for young men_."
For four years Matthew Vassar watched the great buildings take form
and shape in the midst of two hundred acres of lake and river and
green sward, near Poughkeepsie; the main building, five hundred feet
long, two hundred broad, and five stories high; the museum of natural
history, with school of art and library; the great observatory, three
stories high, furnished with the then third largest telescope in the
In 1865 Vassar College was opened, and three hundred and fifty
students came pouring in from all parts of the land. Girls, after all,
did desire an education equal to that of young men. Matthew Vassar
was right. His joy seemed complete. He visited the college daily,
and always received the heartiest welcome. Each year his birthday
was celebrated as "Founder's Day." On one of these occasions he said:
"This is almost more happiness than I can bear. This one day more than
repays me for all I have done." An able and noble man, John Howard
Raymond, was chosen president.
Mr. Vassar lived but three years after his beloved institution was
opened. June 23, 1868, the day before commencement, he had called the
members of the Board around him to listen to his customary address.
Suddenly, when he had nearly finished, his voice ceased, the paper
dropped from his hand, and--he was dead! His last gifts amounted to
over five hundred thousand dollars, making in all $989,122.00 for
the college. The poor lad wrought as he had hoped, a blessing "to the
country and the world." His nephews, Matthew Vassar, Jr., and John Guy
Vassar, have given over one hundred and forty thousand dollars.
After the observatory was completed, there was but one wish as to who
should occupy it; of course, the person desired was Maria Mitchell.
She hesitated to accept the position. Her father was seventy and
needed her care, but he said, "Go, and I will go with you." So she
left her Lynn home for the arduous position of a teacher. For four
years Mr. Mitchell lived to enjoy the enthusiastic work of his
gifted daughter. He said, "Among the teachers and pupils I have made
acquaintances that a prince might covet."
Miss Mitchell makes the observatory her home. Here are her books, her
pictures, her great astronomical clock, and a bust of Mrs. Somerville,
the gift of Frances Power Cobbe. Here for twenty years she has helped
to make Vassar College known and honored both at home and abroad.
Hundreds have been drawn thither by her name and fame. A friend of
mine who went, intending to stay two years, remained five, for her
admiration of and enjoyment in Miss Mitchell. She says: "She is one of
the few genuine persons I have ever known. There is not one particle
of deceit about her. For girls who accomplish something, she has great
respect; for idlers, none. She has no sentimentality, but much wit and
common sense. No one can be long under her teaching without learning
dignity of manner and self-reliance."
She dresses simply, in black or gray, somewhat after the fashion of
her Quaker ancestors. Once when urging economy upon the girls, she
said, "All the clothing I have on cost but seventeen dollars, and four
suits would last each of you a year." There was a quiet smile, but
no audible expression of a purpose to adopt Miss Mitchell's style of
The pupils greatly honor and love the undemonstrative woman, who, they
well know, would make any sacrifices for their well-being. Each week
the informal gatherings at her rooms, where various useful topics
are discussed, are eagerly looked forward to. Chief of all, Miss
Mitchell's own bright and sensible talk is enjoyed. Her "dome
parties," held yearly in June, under the great dome of the
observatory, with pupils coming back from all over the country,
original poems read and songs sung, are among the joys of college
All these years the astronomer's fame has steadily increased. In 1868,
in the great meteoric shower, she and her pupils recorded the paths
of four thousand meteors, and gave valuable data of their height above
the earth. In the summer of 1869 she joined the astronomers who went
to Burlington, Iowa, to observe the total eclipse of the sun, Aug. 7.
Her observations on the transit of Venus were also valuable. She has
written much on the _Satellites of Saturn_, and has prepared a work on
the _Satellites of Jupiter_.
In 1873 she again visited Europe, spending some time with the
family of the Russian astronomer, Professor Struve, at the Imperial
Observatory at Pultowa.
She is an honor to her sex, a striking example of what a quiet country
girl can accomplish without money or fortuitous circumstances.
* * * * *
She resigned her position at Vassar in 1888. Miss Mitchell died on the
morning of June 28, 1889, at Lynn, Mass., at the age of seventy-one,
and was buried at Nantucket on Sunday afternoon, June 30.