The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Trailblazing 19th-Century Astronomer Maria Mitchell on Social Change and the Life of the Mind

“Reformers are apt to forget… that the world is not made up entirely of the wicked and the hungry, there are persons hungry for the food of the mind, the wants of which are as imperious as those of the body.”

Trailblazing 19th-Century Astronomer Maria Mitchell on Social Change and the Life of the Mind

“Everybody should have something to point to,” a mill laborer told Studs Terkel in a beautiful conversation about the dignity of labor. For the vast majority of human history, the vast majority of human labor has been exerted in the direction of alleviating hunger as the basis for the survival of our species — only an unhungry species, after all, can flourish into a civilization. And yet there is a different kind of hunger elemental to the flourishing of a civilization — a hunger of the mind and of the spirit for justice, for peace, for freedom, for the continual reform of society toward expanding the collective landscape of possibility for happiness. At bottom, it is a hunger for knowledge and truth, for without knowing the world as it truly is, we cannot build toward what it could be or should be. The ideal always rests upon and rises from the real, as should rests upon and rises from is.

“We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire,” the trailblazing astronomer and abolitionist Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) wrote as she considered our human search for truth while she was building whole new worlds of possibility for women. Living through the dawning days of liberalism, when social reformers and moralists were fixated on alleviating hunger and eradicating sin while denying more than half the population basic social agency — women and people of color could neither vote, nor own property, nor receive higher education — Mitchell was acutely aware of how intellectual and creative hunger thwarted the growth of the individual and thus the growth of society as a whole.

Portrait of Maria Mitchell (Maria Mitchell Museum, photograph by Maria Popova)

She addressed this in an exquisite diary entry included in Figuring (which long ago began as a biography of Mitchell and from which this essay is excerpted). Writing in her late thirties, several years after her historic comet discovery made her the first woman admitted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Mitchell reflects on the neglected bedrock of social change:

Reformers are apt to forget, in their reasoning, that the world is not made up entirely of the wicked and the hungry, there are persons hungry for the food of the mind, the wants of which are as imperious as those of the body… Reformers are apt to forget too, that the social chain is indomitable; that link by link it acts together, you cannot lift one man above his fellows, but you lift the race of men. Newton, Shakespeare and Milton did not directly benefit the poor and ignorant but the elevation of the whole race has been through them. They probably found it hard to get publishers, but after several centuries, the publishers have come to them and the readers have come, and the race has been lifted.

A decade earlier, Mitchell had devoured Woman in the Nineteenth Century, which struck her with resonance not only political but personal. In the epoch-making book that ignited women’s bid for equality, Margaret Fuller had envisioned a day when a “female Newton” would be possible. And yet Mitchell doesn’t seem to have fully envisioned how her own life was making that possibility real for generations to come. In the revolutionary Aurora Leigh, which was published months after Mitchell penned this diary entry and would soon become one of her favorite books, Elizabeth Barrett Browning captured how those who ignite the profoundest revolutions are themselves blind to their own spark:

The best men, doing their best,
Know peradventure least of what they do:
Men usefullest i’ the world, are simply used…

Maria Mitchell
Maria Mitchell

One of America’s first scientific celebrities, Mitchell traveled to Europe in her fortieth year, visiting with some of the most prominent artists and scientists of the Old World. Upon returning from the land of Milton and Shakespeare and Browning, she was greeted by an extraordinary gift — a five-inch refractor telescope, on a par with the instruments of the world’s greatest observatories, purchased through what may have been the world’s first crowdfunding campaign for science.

The great education reformer Elizabeth Peabody had envisioned the project and spent years raising the $3,000 for the telescope through a subscription paper, rallying Boston’s women to contribute. Just as Mitchell was departing for her European journey, Emerson — the era’s most esteemed cultural sage — had lent his voice to the fundraising effort in the pages of his popular magazine:

In Europe, Maria Mitchell would command the interest and receive the homage of the learned and polite, while in America so little prestige is attached to genius or learning that she is relatively unknown. This is a great fault in our social aspect, one which excites the animadversion of foreigners at once. “Where are your distinguished women — where your learned men?” they ask, as they are invited into our ostentatiously furnished houses to find a group of giggling girls and boys, or commonplace men and women, who do nothing but dance, or yawn about till supper is announced. We need a reform here, most especially if we would not see American society utterly contemptible.

Maria Mitchell’s first telescope, with which she had made her famous comet discovery, still on display at her humble Quaker childhood home on Nantucket. (Maria Mitchell Museum, photograph by Maria Popova)

While touring Europe’s iconic astronomical institutions, Mitchell had been dreaming up an observatory of her own. The crowdfunded telescope came as a wondrous surprise after a particularly difficult stretch for her, marked by the death of her beloved, Ida, and her once-brilliant mother’s terrifying descent into dementia. The instrument became the first physical building block of her dream. Behind the school resembling a Greek temple where her father had once served as founding schoolmaster, she erected a simple eleven-foot dome that rotated on a mechanism made of cannonballs. A month before Darwin published On the Origin of Species, the observatory opened its doors and Mitchell, now the Newton of Nantucket, began welcoming boys and girls.

Maria Mitchell (top row, third from left) with the first astronomy class at Vassar, 1866
Maria Mitchell (top row, third from left) with the first astronomy class at Vassar, 1866

During her time in Italy the previous year, she had hungered to visit the Observatory of Rome, mecca of the latest research on spectroscopy, but was jarred to learn that the observatory was closed to women. The polymathic mathematician Mary Somerville, for whom the word scientist had been coined a quarter century earlier and who was celebrated as Europe’s most learned woman, had been denied entrance, as had Sir John Herschel’s daughter. Mitchell recorded wryly in her diary:

I was ignorant enough of the ways of papal institutions, and, indeed, of all Italy, to ask if I might visit the Roman Observatory. I remembered that the days of Galileo were days of two centuries since. I did not know that my heretic feet must not enter the sanctuary, — that my woman’s robe must not brush the seats of learning.

She was eventually allowed to enter with special permission from the Pope, obtained after American diplomats pressed on her behalf. An hour and a half before sunset, she was led through the church into the observatory, where she marveled at the expensive instruments the papal government employed in studying the very motions for which they had tried Galileo two centuries earlier. Mitchell had hoped to see nebulae through the observatory’s powerful telescope, but she was informed that her permission did not extend past nightfall and was hastily sent away. She must have resolved, as soon as the back door spat her out into the narrow alley behind Collegio Romano, that when she built her own observatory, it would welcome any and all who hungered to commune with the cosmos.

For more excerpts from Figuring, see Elizabeth Peabody on middle age and the art of self-renewal, environmental pioneer Rachel Carson’s timeless advice to the next generations, Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters, and the story of how the forgotten sculptor Harriet Hosmer paved the way for women artists, then revisit Maria Mitchell on knowing what to do with your life and how friendship transforms us.

Published August 1, 2019




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