Ada Lovelace Day: Maria Mitchell

I signed up to  blog for Finding Ada’s day of ” day of blogging (videologging, podcasting, comic drawing etc.!) to draw attention to the achievements of women in technology and science.” And then I thought “wait, who will I write about?”

After all, I’m a geeky artist born to geeky artists. As much as I really enjoyed most of my science classes as a kid, I don’t know about that many historical scientists – and of course most of the ones I do know are men. I considered writing about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and how she tried to bring the Ottoman smallpox inoculations to England, of how 1930s movie beauty Heddy Lamarr was also a brilliant engineer, but neither of those felt quite on.

Then it hit me! Maria Mitchell!

Although in her time she may have been one of world’s most famous natural scientists, most people today do not know who she was. In fact, I wouldn’t know who she was if I hadn’t gone to Vassar College, where she taught astronomy in the late 19th century. Maria Mitchell was an awesome woman, and I mean that more in the traditional sense than the “Bill & Ted” one. She was an astronomer, a teacher, and an advocate for women’s rights. 

I could list all of her accomplishments, but the team at the Vassar Encyclopedia has done a really wonderful job of combing the archives, so I’ll point you toward her main entry, with a note that although the links to sub-articles don’t work from that page, they do from the site map.  I will point out that she was the first person ever to find a comet which could only be seen by a telescope, and following recognition for that she traveled around Europe meeting with fellow scientists.

She was part of the original faculty at Vassar, and the Director of the Observatory (which was the first building on campus to be finished!). Ignoring conventions, she got her students up after dark to use the telescope and make observations with the naked eye. Many women who studied under her went on to become famous scientists themselves.

What I didn’t know until I started looking into her for this blog entry was that she also was an advocate for equal rights – and, importantly, equal pay. While her male colleagues were making $2000, Mitchell made only $800. The board said was because she lived in accommodations on  campus, but the $1200 difference was clearly sexism. Mitchell, along with fellow professor Alida Avery, repeatedly petitioned the board for an equal salary. They managed to get minor raises, but never achieved parity. Of course, over 100 years later, women still generally earn a lower salary than their male colleagues. I’m sure Mitchell would not approve.

Obviously, Maria Mitchell is an important figure in the histories of American scientists, astromony, and education. But why her, and not one of the others I considered?

First semester freshman year, I took Astronomy 102: Stars, Galaxies, and Cosmos. We visited the new observatory on campus to use the high-tech telescopes, but the instructor touched on the history of astronomy at Vassar. My professor, by the way, was the Maria Mitchell Chair in the Astronomy Department, one Debra M. Elmegreen, who researches galaxies and has contributed to their classification.  She taught the class with enthusiasm and intelligence, and it remains one of my favourite classes of all my time at Vassar.

I also chose Maria Mitchell because she stayed important through me during my undergraduate years. One of my best friends was an Astronomy major, and it was never a strange choice of a major because we had such prominent women astronomers, historical and living, present on campus. That friend is now in law school, but I like to think that Mitchell still smiles on her from the afterlife.

So, thank you, Professor and Scientist Maria Mitchell, for forging a path for women in astronomy, and for all the people you’ve inspired in your lifetime and beyond.

Further reading: Encyclopedia Britannica’s article on Maria Mitchell; her wikipedia entry; the Maria Mitchell Association.