“Bend and Stretch, Reach for the Stars”


Sergeant Major
Aug 6, 2016
“Bend and stretch, reach for the stars
There goes Jupiter, here comes Mars
Bend and stretch, reach for the sky

Stand on tip-toes, oh so high!” {*}


Maria Mitchell (1818–1889)

The stars were aligned on August 1, 1818 when Maria Mitchell was born on the island of Nantucket. She was the third of what would be eventually ten children born to Lydia, a library worker and her father a schoolteacher and amateur astronomer, William. It was her father that gave Maria her love for the stars. Coming from a Quaker family where the tenants of education were important, Maria showed an interest in astronomy and mathematics. From a young age her father, recognizing her interest, introduced her to astronomical instruments and she often helped her father is his work in his observations of the night sky.

When Maria was twelve she helped her father calculate the position of their home by observing a solar eclipse. At fourteen she was calculating navigational computations for sailors before they embarked on their whaling journeys. In 1836 Maria became the first librarian at the Nantucket Atheneum. She spent almost twenty years there and during the quiet times she was able to pursue her education learning subjects like Latin, German and Physics.

Nantucket had a strong community of abolitionists and it was Quakers Nathaniel and Eliza Barney that helped established the Anti-Slavery society in 1839. In 1841 the island sponsored their first Anti-Slavery Convention which was held at the Atheneum. Guest speakers were William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips. Also on hand was a twenty-three year old Frederick Douglass along with another twenty-three year old, Maria Mitchell.


In 1847 the Mitchell family had moved to the Pacific National Bank of the Main Street of Nantucket. Her father had taken a job as a cashier. Maria loved to climb to the roof of the bank building and look at the night skies. She was looking through the family telescope they called “the Little Doolond”. Maria reportedly left a party to gaze upon a familiar patch of sky that she had mapped out. While she was watching she saw something she had never seen before a blurry object appearing in an area where it had not been seen before. Maria quickly went and got her father believing she may have seen a comet. Her father immediately urged her to make her discovery public but as a woman she was hesitant for fear of being rejected in the scientific community.

Her father was not going to keep his daughter’s discovery silent. He contacted William C. Bond the director of Observatory at Harvard College. His letter was forwarded on to Edward Everett (the same gentleman that gave the rather long speech at Gettysburg) serving as the President of Harvard. It proved to be a prudent thing to do.

Everett wrote to Maria’s father to inform him that Maria could claim a medal from the King of Denmark for her new comet discovery. It seems Frederick VI, King of Denmark, was himself an amateur astronomer and had offered a gold medal to the first observer of any viewing of a new comet in the night skies. Although he died in 1839 his successor kept the same pledge. It turns out Francesco de Vico actually had spotted the same comet from his location in Rome, however upon an investigation it was confirmed Maria had reported her discovery two days before Vico and was recognized as the comet discoverer and was awarded the gold medal from King Christian of Denmark. The comet officially known as C/1847 T1 became widely known as Miss Mitchell’s Comet and it made Miss Mitchell the first professional female astronomer in the United States. But - it would not be the last time she would be the first at something.


Maria continued to watch the stars. The U.S. Nautical Almanac asked her to track Venus to help with navigation at sea. In 1848 she became the first woman elected into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and in two years she was the first woman admitted into membership to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Lydia Mitchell died in 1861 and shortly afterwards Maria and her father moved to Poughkeepsie and found a home in the Vassar Observatory. The building was the first to be completed after the founding of Vassar Female College. In addition to a 12-inch telescope coming in at second in size in America only to be eclipsed by those at Harvard and the Dudley Observatory at Schenectady, New York, it also included living quarters for her and her father. The Observatory and her living accommodations were all part of her package when she became the first person appointed to the faculty at Vassar. It would be her home for over twenty years.

She enjoyed teaching her female students. She opened the eyes to the heavens as young ladies were awakened and made their way over the observatory under the dark night to study Jupiter or Saturn their teacher’s favorite planets. In 1869 she travelled with seven of her students to view a total eclipse of the sun; their destination Burlington, Iowa. Their reports and observations were published and soon reaching into homes as an encouragement for young ladies in the study of science. She took another group on July 28, 1878 to Denver, Colorado to witness another eclipse. Samuel Morse an admirer and trustee at Vassar donated telegraphy instruments as a method of getting their messages out. Students were trained in the apparatus and their writing were able to be distributed to a larger audience.

Maria also expanded her discussions into women’s issues of the day. On May 10, 1875, Julia Ward Howe visited and spoke on the topic: "Is Polite Society Polite?” {7} [and there is this interesting little bit of trivia regarding her visit. Julia later wrote in her journal about her peaceful day at Vassar College “At bedtime last night I had a thought of ghosts. I spoke of this to Maria Mitchell today. She told me that Mr. Matthew Vassar’s body had been laid in this room and those of various persons since, which, had I known, I had been less comfortable than I was’.] {8}

Maria Mitchell never went to college and became one of the most successful college teachers in the 19th Century. She was at Vassar until her retirement in 1888 and died the following year on June 28 while residing in Lynn, Massachusetts. She is buried where she began her stellar career on Nantucket Island.


1. https://www.mariamitchell.org/about/about-maria-mitchell
2. https://www.mariamitchell.org/resea...a-mitchell/for-students/teacher-and-librarian
3. https://www.mariamitchell.org/research-and-collections/maria-mitchell/for-students/comet
5. https://www.space.com/34709-maria-mitchell-astronomer-feminist.html
6. http://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu/faculty/original-faculty/maria-mitchell1.html
8. https://chronology.vassar.edu/records/1883/1883-01-howe-dream-journal.html
Pictures - Public Domain/Quotes - (Link)