Pi­o­neer­ing woman as­tronomer ob­served 1878 eclipse

The Progress-Index Weekend - - OPINION -

PROV­I­DENCE, R.I. — The cu­ri­ous filled the seats, boxes and bal­cony in Low’s Opera House in down­town Prov­i­dence.

Sci­en­tists, in­tel­lec­tu­als, ed­u­ca­tors and oth­ers in­ter­ested in ce­les­tial mys­ter­ies sat along­side women’s rights ad­vo­cates and stu­dents who had been let out of class to at­tend the lec­ture by Prof. Maria Mitchell.

Mitchell, the first fe­male as­tronomer in the United States, had three months ear­lier led an all­woman team to Den­ver to ob­serve a to­tal so­lar eclipse. In mid-af­ter­noon, it had cast a dark shadow that crept from the Mon­tana ter­ri­to­ries to Texas.

Her lec­ture in Oc­to­ber, 1878 promised to ex­plain what she had learned, and to sat­isfy the coun­try’s grow­ing in­ter­est in the se­crets in the sky.

“... the day of fairy tales had passed and the days of see­ing with our eyes had come,” the mod­er­a­tor of the event told the crowd, ac­cord­ing to a front-page re­port in the Prov­i­dence Daily Jour­nal.

Mitchell had other goals, too.

She wanted to change at­ti­tudes about women in sci­ence and other pro­fes­sions, and de­bunk the­o­ries by prom­i­nent doc­tors, ed­u­ca­tors and re­li­gious lead­ers that higher ed­u­ca­tion, es­pe­cially in the sci­ences, would sicken girls and cause them to lose their femininity.

Mitchell, a suf­fragette, also hoped to make a big­ger point: If women could do the same work as men in medicine, jour­nal­ism and as­tron­omy, why shouldn’t they get equal pay, and why couldn’t they vote?

Some 139 years later, on the eve of another to­tal eclipse, Mitchell’s lec­ture serves as a bench­mark in the evo­lu­tion of the study of sci­ence in the U.S. and of the early days of the women’s rights move­ment. It also marked a time in the coun­try’s his­tory when all things seemed pos­si­ble.

“Miss Mitchell’s Comet”

Mitchell’s lec­ture in Prov­i­dence came in the lat­ter stages of a unique life and ca­reer that be­gan on Nan­tucket in 1818. Her fa­ther, a Quaker and a bank cashier, also worked as a part-time as­tronomer who taught Mitchell a love of the skies, ac­cord­ing to “Sweeper in the Sky,” a bi­og­ra­phy of Mitchell by He­len Wright.

In her youth, Mitchell, whose first name was pro­nounced “muh-rye-uh,” as­sisted her fa­ther in his ob­ser­va­tory on the rooftop of the build­ing where they lived. At age 12, she saw her first eclipse, count­ing off the sec­onds as the moon crossed in front of the sun while her fa­ther made cal­cu­la­tions.

Mitchell later be­came the first li­brar­ian at the Nan­tucket Atheneum, where she read vo­ra­ciously and stud­ied the skies at night.

In 1847, at age 29, she dis­cov­ered with her small tele­scope what be­came known as “Miss Mitchell’s Comet.” Her work won her in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion, in­clud­ing a gold medal from the King of Den­mark.

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