Read CHAPTER VIII of Maria Mitchell: Life‚ Letters‚ and Journals, free online book, by Maria Mitchell, on



“I had no hope, when I went to Europe, of knowing Mrs. Somerville. American men of science did not know her, and there had been unpleasant passages between the savants of Europe and those of the United States which made my friends a little reluctant about giving me letters.

“Professor Henry offered to send me letters, and said that among them should be one to Mrs. Somerville; but when his package came, no such letter appeared, and I did not like to press the matter,indeed, after I had been in England I was not surprised at any amount of reluctance. They rarely asked to know my friends, and yet, if they were made known to them, they did their utmost.

“So I went to Europe with no letter to Mrs. Somerville, and no letter to the Herschels.

“I was very soon domesticated with the Airys, and really felt my importance when I came to sleep in one of the round rooms of the Royal Observatory. I dared give no hint to the Airys that I wanted to know the Herschels, although they were intimate friends. ’What was I that I should love them, save for feeling of the pain?’ But one fine day a letter came to Mrs. Airy from Lady Herschel, and she asked, ’Would not Miss Mitchell like to visit us?’ Of course Miss Mitchell jumped at the chance! Mrs. Airy replied, and probably hinted that Miss Mitchell ’could be induced,’ etc.

“If the Airys were old friends of Mrs. Somerville, the Herschels were older. The Airys were just and kind to me; the Herschels were lavish, and they offered me a letter to Mrs. Somerville.

“So, provided with this open sesame to Mrs. Somerville’s heart, I called at her residence in Florence, in the spring of 1858.

“I sent in the letter and a card, and waited in the large Florentine parlor. In the open fireplace blazed a wood fire very suggestive of American comfortvery deceitful in the suggestion, for there is little of home comfort in Italy.

“After some little delay I heard a footstep come shuffling along the outer room, and an exceedingly tall and very old man entered the room, in the singular head-dress of a red bandanna turban, approached me, and introduced himself as Dr. Somerville, the husband.

“He was very proud of his wife, and very desirous of talking about her, a weakness quite pardonable in the judgment of one who is desirous to know. He began at once on the subject. Mrs. Somerville, he said, took great interest in the Americans, for she claimed connection with the family of George Washington.

“Washington’s half-brother, Lawrence, married Anne Fairfax, who was one of the Scotch family. When Lieutenant Fairfax was ordered to America, Washington wrote to him as a family relative, and asked him to make him a visit. Lieutenant Fairfax applied to his commanding officer for permission to accept, and it was refused. They never met, and much to the regret of the Fairfax family the letter of Washington was lost. The Fairfaxes of Virginia are of the same family, and occasionally some member of the American branch returns to see his Scotch cousins.

“While Dr. Somerville was eagerly talking of these things, Mrs. Somerville came tripping into the room, speaking at once with the vivacity of a young person. She was seventy-seven years old, but appeared twenty years younger. She was not handsome, but her face was pleasing; the forehead low and broad; the eyes blue; the features so regular, that in the marble bust by Chantrey, which I had seen, I had considered her handsome.

“Neither bust nor picture, however, gives a correct idea of her, except in the outline of the head and shoulders.

“She spoke with a strong Scotch accent, and was slightly affected with deafness, an infirmity so common in England and Scotland.

“While Mrs. Somerville talked, the old gentleman, seated by the fire, busied himself in toasting a slice of bread on a fork, which he kept at a slow-toasting distance from the coals. An English lady was present, learned in art, who, with a volubility worthy of an American, rushed into every little opening of Mrs. Somerville’s more measured sentences with her remarks upon recent discoveries in her specialty. Whenever this occurred, the old man grew fidgety, moved the slice of bread backwards and forwards as if the fire were at fault, and when, at length, the English lady had fairly conquered the ground, and was started on a long sentence, he could bear the eclipse of his idol no longer, but, coming to the sofa where we sat, he testily said, ’Mrs. Somerville would rather talk on science than on art.’

“Mrs. Somerville’s conversation was marked by great simplicity; it was rather of the familiar and chatty order, with no tendency to the essay style. She touched upon the recent discoveries in chemistry or the discovery of gold in California, of the nebulae, more and more of which she thought might be resolved, and yet that there might exist nebulous matters, such as compose the tails of comets, of the satellites, of the planets, the last of which she thought had other uses than as subordinates. She spoke with disapprobation of Dr. Whewell’s attempt to prove that our planet was the only one inhabited by reasoning beings; she believed that a higher order of beings than ourselves might people them.

“On subsequent visits there were many questions from Mrs. Somerville in regard to the progress of science in America. She regretted, she said, that she knew so little of what was done in our country.

“From Lieutenant Maury, alone, she received scientific papers. She spoke of the late Dr. (Nathaniel) Bowditch with great interest, and said she had corresponded with one of his sons. She asked after Professor Peirce, whom she considered a great mathematician, and of the Bonds, of Cambridge. She was much interested in their photography of the stars, and said it had never been done in Europe. At that time photography was but just applied to the stars. I had carried to the Royal Astronomical Society the first successful photograph of a star. It was that of Mizar and Alcor, in the Great Bear. (Since that time all these things have improved.)

“The last time I saw Mrs. Somerville, she took me into her garden to show me her rose-bushes, in which she took great pride. Mrs. Somerville was not a mathematician only, she spoke Italian fluently, and was in early life a good musician.

“I could but admire Mrs. Somerville as a woman. The ascent of the steep and rugged path of science had not unfitted her for the drawing-room circle; the hours of devotion to close study have not been incompatible with the duties of wife and mother; the mind that has turned to rigid demonstration has not thereby lost its faith in those truths which figures will not prove. ‘I have no doubt,’ said she, in speaking of the heavenly bodies, ’that in another state of existence we shall know more about these things.’

“Mrs. Somerville, at the age of seventy-seven, was interested in every new improvement, hopeful, cheery, and happy. Her society was sought by the most cultivated people in the world. [She died at ninety-two.]

“Berlin, May 7, 1858. Humboldt had replied to my letter of introduction by a note, saying that he should be happy to see me at 2 P.M., May 7. Of course I was punctual. Humboldt is one of several residents in a very ordinary-looking house on Oranienberge strasse.

“All along up the flight of stairs to his room were printed notices telling persons where to leave packages and letters for Alexander Humboldt.

“The servant showed me at first into a sort of anteroom, hung with deers’ horns and carpeted with tigers’ skins, then into the study, and asked me to take a seat on the sofa. The room was very warm; comfort was evidently carefully considered, for cushions were all around; the sofa was handsomely covered with worsted embroidery. A long study-table was full of books and papers.

“I had waited but a few moments when Humboldt came in; he was a smaller man than I had expected to see. He was neater, more ‘trig,’ than the pictures represent him; in looking at the pictures you feel that his head is too large,out of proportion to the body,but you do not perceive this when you see him.

“He bowed in a most courtly manner, and told me he was much obliged to me for coming to see him, then shook hands, and asked me to sit, and took a chair near me.

“There was a clock in sight, and I stayed but half an hour. He talked every minute, and on all kinds of subjects: of Dr. Bache, who was then at the head of the U.S. Coast Survey; of Dr. Gould, who had recently returned from long years in South America; of the Washington Observatory and its director, Lieutenant Maury; of the Dudley Observatory, at Albany; of Sir George Airy, of the Greenwich Observatory; of Professor Enke’s comet reputation; of Argelander, who was there observing variable stars; of Mrs. Somerville and Goldschmidt, and of his brother.

“It was the period when the subject of admitting Kansas as a slave State was discussedhe touched upon that; it was during the administration of President Buchanan, and he talked about that.

“Having been nearly a year in Europe, I had not kept up my reading of American newspapers, but Humboldt could tell me the latest news, scientifically and politically. To my ludicrous mortification, he told me of the change of position of some scientific professor in New York State, and when I showed that I didn’t know the location of the town, which was Clinton, he told me if I would look at the map, which lay upon the table, I should find the town somewhere between Albany and Buffalo.

“Humboldt was always considered a good-tempered, kindly-natured man, but his talk was a little fault-finding.

“He said: ’Lieutenant Maury has been useful, but for the director of an observatory he has put forth some strange statements in the ’Geography of the Sea.’

“He asked me if Mrs. Somerville was now occupied with pure mathematics. He said: ’There she is strong. I never saw her but once. She must be over sixty years old.’ In reality she was seventy-seven. He spoke with admiration of Mrs. Somerville’s ’Physical Geography,’said it was excellent because so concise. ’A German woman would have used more words.’

“Humboldt asked me if they could apply photography to the small starsto the eighth or ninth magnitude. I had asked the same question of Professor Bond, of Cambridge, and he had replied, ’Give me $500,000, and we can do it; but it is very expensive.’

“Humboldt spoke of the fifty-three small planets, and gave his opinion that they could not be grouped together; that there was no apparent connection.

“Having lost all his teeth, Humboldt’s articulation was indistincthe talked very rapidly. His hair was thin and very white, his eyes very blue, his nose too broad and too flat; yet he was a handsome man. He wore a white necktie, a black dress-coat, buttoned up, but not so much so that it hid a figured dark-blue and white waistcoat. He was a little deaf. He told me that he was eighty-nine years old, and that he and Bonpland, alone, were living of those who in early life were on expeditions together; that Bonpland was eighty-five, and much the more vigorous of the two.

“He said that we had gone backwards, morally, in America since he was there,that then there were strong men there: Jefferson, and Hamilton, and Madison; that the three months he spent in America were spent almost wholly with Jefferson.

“In the course of conversation he told me that the fifth volume of ‘Cosmos’ was in preparation. He urged me to go to see Argelander on my way to London; he followed me out, still urging me to do this, and at the same time assured me that Kansas would go all right.

“It was singular that Humboldt should advise me to use the sextant; it was the first instrument that I ever used, and it is a very difficult one. No young aspirant in science ever left Humboldt’s presence uncheered, and no petty animosities come out in his record. You never heard of Humboldt’s complaining that any one had stolen his thunder,he knew that no one could lift his bolts.

“When I came away, he thanked me again for the visit, followed me into the anteroom, and made a low bow.”

In 1855 Mrs. Mitchell was taken suddenly ill, and although partial recovery followed, her illness lasted for six years, during which time Maria was her constant nurse. For most of the six years her mother’s condition was such that merely a general care was needed, but it used to be said that Maria’s eyes were always upon her. When the opportunity to go to Europe came, an older sister came with her family to take Maria’s place in the home; and when Miss Mitchell returned she found her mother so nearly in the state in which she had left her, that she felt justified in having taken the journey.

Mrs. Mitchell died in 1861, and a few months after her death Mr. Mitchell and his daughter removed to Lynn, Mass.Miss Mitchell having purchased a small house in that city, in the rear of which she erected the little observatory brought from Nantucket. She was very much depressed by her mother’s death, and absorbed herself as much as possible in her observations and in her work for the Nautical Almanac.

Soon after her return from Europe she had been presented with an equatorial telescope, the gift of American women, through Miss Elizabeth Peabody. The following letter refers to this instrument:



MY DEAR MISS MITCHELL: ... We are much pleased to hear of your acquisition of an equatorial instrument under a revolving roof, for it is a true scientific luxury as well as an efficient implement. The aperture of your object-glass is sufficient for doing much useful work, but, if I may hazard an opinion to you, do not attempt too much, for it is quality rather than quantity which is now desirable. I would therefore leave the multiplication of objects to the larger order of telescopes, and to those who are given to sweep and ransack the heavens, of whom there is a goodly corps. Now, for your purpose, I would recommend a batch of neat, but not over-close, binary systems, selected so as to have always one or the other on hand.

I, however, have been bestirring myself to put amateurs upon a more convenient and, I think, a better mode of examining double stars than by the wire micrometer, with its faults of illumination, fiddling, jumps, and dirty lamps. This is by the beautiful method of rock-crystal prisms, not the Rochon method of double-image, but by thin wedges cut to given angles. I have told Mr. Alvan Clark my “experiences.” and I hope he will apply his excellent mind to the scheme. I am insisting upon this point in some astronomical twaddle which I am now printing, and of which I shall soon have to request your acceptance of a copy.

There is a very important department which calls for a zealous amateur or two, namely, the colors of double stars, for these have usually been noted after the eye has been fatigued with observing in illuminated fields.  The volume I hope to forwarden hommagewill contain all the pros and cons of this branch.

There is, for ultimate utility, nothing like forming a plan and then steadily following it. Those who profess they will attend to everything often fall short of the mark. The division of labor leads to beneficial conclusions as well in astronomy as in mechanics and arts.

Mrs. Smyth and my daughter unite with me in wishing you all
happiness and success; and believe me

My dear Miss Mitchell,

Yours very faithfully,


In regard to the colors of stars, Miss Mitchell had already begun their study, as these extracts from her diary show:

“Fe, 1853. I am just learning to notice the different colors of the stars, and already begin to have a new enjoyment. Betelgeuse is strikingly red, while Rigel is yellow. There is something of the same pleasure in noticing the hues that there is in looking at a collection of precious stones, or at a flower-garden in autumn. Blue stars I do not yet see, and but little lilac except through the telescope.

“Fe, 1855.... I swept around for comets about an hour, and then I amused myself with noticing the varieties of color. I wonder that I have so long been insensible to this charm in the skies, the tints of the different stars are so delicate in their variety. ... What a pity that some of our manufacturers shouldn’t be able to steal the secret of dyestuffs from the stars, and astonish the feminine taste by new brilliancy in fashion.

[NANTUCKET], April .

MY DEAR: Your father just gave me a great fright by “tapping at my window” (I believe Poe’s was a door, wasn’t it?) and holding up your note. I was busy examining some star notices just received from Russia or Germany,I never knew where Dorpat is.and just thinking that my work was as good as theirs. I always noticed that when school-teachers took a holiday in order to visit other institutions they came home and quietly said, “No school is better or as good as mine.” And then I read your note, and perceive your reading is as good as Mrs. Kemble’s. Now, being modest, I always felt afraid the reason I thought you such a good reader was because I didn’t know any better, but if all the world is equally ignorant, it makes it all right....

I’ve been intensely busy. I have been looking for the little inferior planet to cross the sun, which it hasn’t done, and I got an article ready for the paper and then hadn’t the courage to publishnot for fear of the readers, but for fear that I should change my own ideas by the time ’twas in print.

I am hoping, however, to have something by the meeting of the Scientific Association in August,some paper,not to get reputation for myself,my reputation is so much beyond me that as policy I should keep quiet,but in order that my telescope may show that it is at work. I am embarrassed by the amount of work it might doas you do not know which of Mrs. Browning’s poems to read, there are so many beauties.

The little republic of San Marino presented Miss Mitchell, in 1859, with a bronze medal of merit, together with the Ribbon and Letters Patent signed by the two captains regent. This medal she prized as highly as the gold one from Denmark.

“Nantucket, May 12, 18.... I send you a notice of an occultation; the last sentence and the last figures are mine. You and I can never occult, for have we not always helped one another to shine? Do you have Worcester’s Dictionary? I read it continually. Did you feast on ’The Marble Faun’? I have a charming letter from Una Hawthorne, herself a poet by nature, all about ‘papa’s book.’ Ought not Mr. Hawthorne to be the happiest man alive? He isn’t, though! Do save all the anecdotes you possibly can, piquant or not; starved people are not over-nice.

LYNN, Ja .

... I very rarely see the B s; they go to a different church, and you know with that class of people “not to be with us is to be against us.” Indeed, I know very little of Lynn people. If I can get at Mr. J., when you come to see me I’ll ask him to tea. He has called several times, but he’s in such demand that he must be engaged some weeks in advance! Would you, if you lived in Lynn, want to fall into such a mass of idolaters?

I was wretchedly busy up to December 31, but have got into quiet seas again. I have had a great deal of companynot a person that I did not want to see, but I can’t make the days more than twenty-four hours long, with all my economy of time. This week Professor Crosby, of Salem, comes up with his graduating class and his corps of teachers for an evening.

They remained in Lynn until Miss Mitchell was called to Vassar College, in 1865, as professor of astronomy and director of the observatory.