Pioneering woman astronomer observed 1878 eclipse
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.