Maria Mitchell: Astronomer, Professor, Extraordinary Woman! (1818 – 1889)
“I could not help but admire her as a woman. The ascent of the steep and rugged path of science has 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.”
These are the words of Maria Mitchell, about Mary Sommerville, a woman she greatly admired for her intellectual prowess in astronomy, chemistry, physics and mathematics. The same could easily be said of her.
Young Maria Mitchell learned to observe the stars from her father, who used stellar observations to aid whalers and taught his children to use telescopes. When Mitchell was 12, she helped her father record the time of an eclipse. By the age of 17, she had already begun her own school for girls, teaching them science and math. Imagine a school built with the specific mission of bringing young girls into the fields so dominated by their male counterparts.
In 1847, Mitchell spotted a blurry streak—a comet—through her telescope. The world of astronomy was awestruck by the discovery. She became the first woman to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and would become the first female astronomy professor in the United States, when she was hired by Vassar College in 1865.
We cannot help but admire her as a woman and as an admirer of women. She not only lauded others efforts, supporting and shining a light for others to see, she became her own light. Mitchell used that light to brighten the way for countless girls. She did not use her power only for herself. Maria Mitchell channeled her power, her light and her intellect into the world.
As we look for ways to channel our own natural abilities, maybe we should try to look further forward than ourselves, our own families and those we know and love. Perhaps we should dig deeper channels, longer channels, for those we may never know or see, but whose lives we may change with the focus and creativity that is inherent in each of us individually.
Like Maria Mitchell, we can look up the stars…and reach…and even CATCH one! But we can’t stop looking and we can’t stop showing others that there is something worth seeing.