Notable Women in the Physical Sciences: A Biographical Dictionary

By Benjamin F. Shearer; Barbara S. Shearer | Go to book overview
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ematics and science. She formed a Committee on Science to study women's progress in science, which compiled statistics and collected other data. Mitchell was elected president of the AAW at its second annual meeting. However, she did not stay in this role long because she felt her primary role was as a scientist.

Mitchell's published work includes seven items listed in the "Royal Society Catalog" and three articles, observational in nature, published in Silliman's Journal, also known as the American Journal of Science and Arts. In addition, she wrote three popular articles for "Hours at Home, Century", and the "Atlantic". During her years at Vassar she edited the astronomical column of Scientific American. She believed strongly in the value of imagination in science, saying, "It is not all mathematics, nor all logic but is somewhat beauty and poetry."6 She contemplated the relationship between poetry and astronomy, writing an article on the subject about Milton. She remarked that "Paradise Lost" reflected "through a poet's lens but with considerable learning, the state of astronomical knowledge in his time." 7

After teaching at Vassar for 23 years, Mitchell's health began to fail. She retired in December 1888 and returned to Lynn, where she died in 1889. Mitchell did not feel that she was a theoretician, but rather a teacher and observer. She saw a conflict in trying to do both, remarking that "the scientist should be free to pursue his investigations. He cannot be a scientist and a schoolmaster." 8 She felt she had only ordinary talent but "extraordinary persistence." 9 Her other important contribution, of course, was as a leader in the women's movement, focusing on the encouragement and recruiting of women into science. Mitchell received three honorary degrees: from Hanover College in Indiana, Columbia University, and Rutgers Female College. A crater on the moon was named after her and a society established in her honor--the Maria Mitchell Association of Nantucket, which maintains the Maria Mitchell Observatory.

Eve Merriam, "Maria Mitchell: Extracts from Her Diary," in Growing Up Female in America ( New York: Dell, 1971), p. 73.
Helen Wright, Sweeper in the Sky: The Life of Maria Mitchell ( New York: Macmillan, 1949), p. 25.
Phebe Mitchell Kendall, Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals ( Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1896), p. 31.
Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, "Maria Mitchell and the Advancement of Women in Science," in Uneasy Careers and Intimate Lives, Women in Science, 1789-1979, eds. Pnina G. Abir-am and Dorinda Outram ( New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987), pp. 130-131.
Kendall, Maria Mitchell, p. 187.


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