“Maria Mitchell proposes to open a school for girls,” read the advertisement in The Nantucket Inquirer in August 1835.
“Instruction will be given in Reading, Spelling, Geography, Grammar, History, Natural Philosophy, Arithmetic, Geometry and Algebra. Terms $3 per quarter. None admitted under six years of age.”
Teaching young people was one of the acceptable jobs for a bright teenage Quaker who had been raised to believe that her mind was no less able than her brothers’. On the first day of school, Mitchell waited in her rented room, with school supplies ready and tables straight. To her surprise, the first aspiring learners to peek in were three little girls with dark skin. Most nonwhite people in this flourishing whaling center lodged with the Cape Verdean community, immigrants from the island off the western coast of Africa that had been a pivot of the Atlantic slave trade.
One of the girls asked Mitchell if she might enroll in the school. Raised like most Quakers to oppose slavery, Mitchell knew that recently debate had raged in Nantucket’s white community about the radical notion of integrating the island’s public school. Slavery had been banned in Massachusetts since the 1780s, but government, business, and education carefully kept “free” Black people on the lowest rung of the social ladder. When she met the girls’ hopeful gazes and told them yes, they could enroll, Mitchell knew that uproar might follow.
Mitchell was just 17 then, but she would go on to be the first female astronomer in the United States and one of the first in the world. “Part of what Maria Mitchell did,” says astrophysicist and University of New Hampshire assistant professor Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, “was give us a model of a community-engaged astronomer. She never thought she should just shut up and calculate.” Mitchell was principled in her views and not timid about sharing them. “She had a sense of responsibility to the broader community, from the importance of educating Black girls during a time of intense segregation to her subsequent persistent advocacy for women in science.”
Today, 133 years after her death, Mitchell’s legacy continues in institutions such as the Maria Mitchell Observatory on her native Nantucket, where director Regina Jorgenson conducts research on galaxy formation and directs an outreach program targeting students from underserved communities. “Maria Mitchell was very much ahead of her time,” Jorgenson says. “‘Learning by doing’ was her foundational philosophy. While this is fairly common pedagogical practice today, it was not at all at that time.”
The observatory’s research program, once women-only, is now mixed-gender but still women-dominated. Which, adds Jorgenson, “is extremely unusual, if not unique,” in American astrophysics. One in 20 female astronomers in the country has passed through the observatory in some fashion, creating a community of women tied together by the legacy of Maria Mitchell.
White society was not torpedoed by the education of three Black girls, it turned out, and Mitchell soon moved to other fields. She did not attend college (few colleges accepted women at that time), but within a year, she was hired as librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum. Many cities boasted an athenaeum (named for Athena, the Olympian goddess of wisdom), a combination of a subscription library, nexus of important periodicals, and lecture venue. (Many, such as Nantucket’s and Boston’s, still flourish.) Mitchell worked there for two decades. She spent spare hours devouring books and periodicals about astronomy and mathematics, while teaching herself French and German.
William Mitchell, her father, held many jobs over the years, from clerk of the Nantucket Society of Friends to banker, schoolmaster, and legislator. He even set chronometers for whaling captains who required an accurate timepiece for determining longitude. But the constant for him and his family was astronomy.
His daughter’s talents in this field were recognized early. Beginning in childhood as her father’s assistant, Maria grew ever more adept as an astronomer — which flowered into her great passion in life. By the age of 12 she was charting eclipses from the awkward little platform perched astride their steep roof.
When William was hired in 1836 as director of Pacific Bank, the job included a spacious penthouse apartment above the bank. Its flat slate roof made it easier for him and his daughter to build another observatory. For the next 11 years, she peered at the sky on most clear nights.
She had been precisely monitoring successive quadrants of the sky for years when, on October 1, 1847, the Mitchells hosted a party. It was a clear and cool night. After tea she said to the guests and her family, “Now, you must excuse me. The heavens are so clear I want to sweep the skies. Who knows what comets may be roaming at large?”
Maria donned a coat and climbed up to the roof. She peered yet again at a familiar corner of the sky — but this time she saw something new. She went downstairs and told her father what she thought she had found.
Soon partygoers heard William race downstairs from the roof. With his observing cap still pulled low over his eyes, he tore open the parlor door and exclaimed, “Maria has found a telescopic comet!”
He wrote immediately to various authorities to establish her priority. Soon the director of the US Coast Survey was writing, “We congratulate the indefatigable comet seeker most heartily on her success; is she not the first lady who has ever discovered a comet?”
She was not, but it was a rare achievement nonetheless. For millennia, these visitors to the night sky had been regarded as celestial omens, and this one bode well for Maria Mitchell. Soon popularly called Miss Mitchell’s Comet (now designated C/1847 T1), it is not a periodic visitor to the solar system, unlike the comets Halley or Hale-Bopp.
At 30, Mitchell began to receive the scientific accolades that would continue for the rest of her life. She was the first American astronomer to discover a comet. Soon Mitchell became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and later to most of the previously all-male institutions, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She became quite famous, publicly supporting feminism and abolition when it would have been easier to not do so. When Frederick Douglass first spoke to a large mixed-race audience on Nantucket in 1841, she was present, and her work was honored at the Seneca Falls Woman’s Rights Convention in 1848.
When Vassar College opened its doors in 1865, Mitchell was there as its first professor of astronomy (paid considerably less than her male colleagues). She was 47 and among the first generation of astronomers who were also college professors — a marriage of commitments that left her exhausted.
She was hugely popular with students — even revered. They helped her chart sunspots and eclipses. “We are women studying together,” she would say to launch a class. She objected to numerical grading but gave rigorous math tests. “Astronomy is not stargazing,” she insisted. “The laws which govern the motions of the sun, the earth, planets, and other bodies in the universe cannot be understood and demonstrated without a solid basis of mathematical learning.”
And Mitchell treated her students as serious scholars. One student wrote of her time at Vassar: “I have Miss Mitchell and all these grand instruments and no one here makes fun of it at all. But when I go home no one there will take any interest in astronomy. Do you think I shall be brave enough then to hold on tight to what I have begun?”
Mitchell died in 1889. In 1935, a century after she opened that school for girls, her admiring colleagues in the field named a lunar crater after her.
Thirteen years after Mitchell’s death, Nantucketers formed the Maria Mitchell Association to preserve her legacy as a scientist and teacher, which was meant, in part, to help female students study astronomy and “hold on tight” to what they began. Now the association operates two observatories, a museum at the original Mitchell home on Vestal Street — where Maria and her father observed the constellations from their roof — and an aquarium, providing many programs for scientists and the public.
Regina Jorgenson has been director of the Maria Mitchell Observatory since 2016. She began her career with a fellowship that enabled her to travel around the world and meet with women in astronomy to research the effect of different cultures on women’s potential in science. “This is a unique position for an astronomer, because it is not at an academic institute. It combines the three things I love: research, working with students, and doing public outreach.”
Under Jorgenson’s leadership, the observatory focuses on mentoring underrepresented groups at crucial stages in their careers. Thus, the array of students and speakers is quite different than in Mitchell’s time. Prescod-Weinstein, who gave a lecture for the Maria Mitchell Association last July on her research into dark matter, writes about astronomy and physics within the context of her experience as a Black woman who is also agender, representing an intersection of groups that for centuries have deliberately been excluded from science.
Prescod-Weinstein says that her night sky looks very different from Maria Mitchell’s. Mitchell was born in 1818, before the adoption of trains, telegraphy, even photography. She could watch for comets from atop a bank in bustling downtown Nantucket. Prescod-Weinstein was born in smoggy Los Angeles, 164 years after Mitchell and after an industrial revolution accelerated climate change. “My concept of the night sky was that at night it turned orange, because you were seeing the sodium lights reflected in the sky.” She could scarcely see any stars.
Prescod-Weinstein is now an astrophysicist, and an assistant professor of physics at the University of New Hampshire. Her primary research is in the intersection of particle physics, astrophysics, and cosmology (the science of the origin and development of the universe). She writes a monthly column, Field Notes from Spacetime, for New Scientist, and contributes columns to Physics World. And, she teaches the next generation of astronomers and physicists.
In 1835, the three little girls from the Cape Verdean community could attend teenage Maria’s first school, but when Mitchell became an astronomy professor at Vassar, they would not have been allowed to enroll. Prescod-Weinstein is acutely aware of the loss of stories such as theirs. “Even in the worst conditions,” she writes in her book, The Disordered Cosmos, “Black women have looked up at the night sky and wondered. Those women whose names I do not know, who may or may not be part of my bloodline, are as much my intellectual ancestors as Isaac Newton is.”
Prescod-Weinstein’s mother is Barbadian and her Ashkenazi father was raised in part in Trinidad. Like Mitchell, Prescod-Weinstein celebrates her family’s example. “I’m a third-generation teacher.” Informed opposition to injustice is as natural a part of her heritage as teaching. The most recent book by her 91-year-old grandmother, Selma James, is Our Time Is Now: Sex, Race, Class, and Caring for People and Planet.
Published last year, The Disordered Cosmos elliptically orbits the theme of Prescod-Weinstein’s research in the context of her personal experience and intellectual coming of age. It ranges from the Alice-in-Wonderland contradictions of quantum mechanics to exploring how a dominant culture controls the naming of new concepts about nature and science to worrying about the dangers of an infamously colonialist culture carrying flags to the moon and Mars.
“You know,” Prescod-Weinstein says, “you come to college in Boston, you go to a place like Harvard, and you hear about people like Maria Mitchell — because they’re considered the great historical figures of the Boston-metro area. It’s interesting which stories people choose to emphasize and choose to not emphasize. And that story about Mitchell refusing to segregate her school? That is not one I was told while I was in college. It wasn’t considered worth remembering.”
Author Rebecca Solnit wrote that stars “exist in the cosmos, but constellations are the imaginary lines we draw between them, the readings we give the sky, the stories we tell.” The century and a half of women’s struggles in science since Maria Mitchell has resulted in new constellations of astronomers gazing at the sky. With her work on comets and sunspots, as well as her unconventional teaching methods, Mitchell created a model for an alternate intellectual genealogy in the field of astronomy. Aware of the many women of color excluded from this genealogy, Prescod-Weinstein also divides her time between studying the sky and critiquing science and society. Like Mitchell, Prescod-Weinstein sees adding new observers as a way of changing science itself. “Creating room for Black children to freely love particle physics and cosmology,” she writes in her book, “means radically changing society and the role of physicists within it.”
Michael Sims is writing a book about the young Frederick Douglass. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Maria Mitchell’s first students having a Caribbean background, when the historical record only supports a probable African heritage.