Read MARIA MITCHELL. of Lives of Girls Who Became Famous, free online book, by Sarah Knowles Bolton, on

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 aspiring mind.

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 taught.

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 remembrance.

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 later period.”

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 French.”

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:


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 thoughts.

Calling together, Fe, 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 country.

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 dress.

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 life.

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, Au. 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.