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Miss Mitchell’s Comet

April 15, 2011

Maria Mitchell 1818-1889

 In her day, Maria Mitchell, the quiet Quaker who discovered a comet, was as famous as suffragist Susan B. Anthony. Maria was America’s first woman astronomer and taught at Vassar College from its founding in 1865 until the year before her death in 1889.

Like many born on Nantucket, Maria was raised a Quaker, as was Melville’s Captain Ahab. While researching Moby Dick, Melville travelled to Nantucket to interview Captain Pollard, whose whaleship, the Essex, had been sunk by a sperm whale. Melville met Maria Mitchell and wrote a poem, “After the Pleasure Party,” in which a thinly disguised Maria Mitchell wishes for a husband.

But that was Melville’s interpretation.

What a dick!

In seafaring Nuntucket, a knowledge of the stars was a necessity. But for Maria, scanning the skies was a spiritual privilege. “The greatest benefit derived from the study of science,” she wrote, “is that it lifts you out of and above the littleness of daily trials.”  Growing up with nine siblings, bounded by chores and Quaker restraint, Maria found solace in the stars, and was aided and encouraged by her father, an amateur astronomer. When Maria was twelve, he trusted her to count off the seconds of a solar eclipse. When she was fourteen she was able to do her father’s work of setting sea captains’ chronometers.

Night after night Maria, unconcerned about sleep or cold, scanned the night sky. In 1847 she became the first American and first woman to sight a new comet. From that moment on, newspapers reported her travels, calling her, as did Chicago’s Democratic Press, “the most distinguished lady mathematician and astronomer in the U.S.”.

Miss Mitchells Comet ~ C/1847 T1.

One night in the Autumn of 1847, Maria looked at the sky through the telescope and saw a star five degrees above the North Star where there had been no star before. She had memorized the sky and was sure of her observation. It occurred to her that this might be a comet. Maria recorded the presumed comet’s coordinates. The next night the star moved again. This time she was sure it was a comet. Her father wrote to Professor William Bond at the Harvard University observatory about Maria’s discovery. Professor Bond submitted Maria’s name to the king of Denmark who had offered a gold medal to a person who discovers a comet seen only through a telescope. Another person, Father Francesco de Vico of Rome discovered the same comet two days later than Maria Mitchell and the decision was made to award him the prize before news of Maria’s earlier discovery arrived in Europe. After some negotiations Maria Mitchell was awarded the medal for this discovery a year later. The comet was named “Miss Mitchell’s Comet.” [Source Distinguished Women]

”Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last,” begins Naslund’s heroine, Una Spenser, as she lies on her back on a Nantucket beach after Ahab’s death, watching the clouds go by.

 Further Reading:

Herman Melville, the last great enigma of American literature

CR4 The Engineer’s Place for News & Discussion ~ Maria Mitchell

Ahab’s Wife Or, The Star-gazer: A Novel ~ Sena Jeter Naslund

More about the Glove knit from byssus yarn

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