July 31, 2009
Standing in the entrance to the first floor west wing of the National Museum of American History, a large telescope towers over visitors. It’s angled toward the ceiling, drawing the eye up to imagine the sky above. Saturday marks an auspicious day for the artifact. It is the 191st birthday of astronomer Maria Mitchell, a woman who not only broke the proverbial glass ceiling of her time but managed to gaze deep into the heavens, using this telescope and made significant contributions to the science.
Made by New Yorker Henry Fitz, it was the third largest in the U.S. in the late 1800s. With a 12-3/8 inch diameter lens and equatorial mount, which aligned it with Earth’s poles, the astronomical instrument is impressive.
In 1818, women weren’t expected to be scientists, much less astronomers. Maria Mitchell, born on August 1 of that year, challenged that preconception, becoming an astronomy professor at Vassar Female College where she used Fitz’s telescope.
Mitchell grew up in Nantucket and was greatly influenced by her father, William Mitchell, who was a teacher and encouraged her use of his telescope. For 20 years, she worked as a librarian, while watching the stars at night.
In October 1847, Mitchell established the orbit of a new comet, a discovery that skyrocketed her standing in the scientific community, and she won a medal from the King of Denmark for her efforts. The next year, she became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and became known as America’s first professional female astronomer.
Mitchell accepted a teaching position at Vassar Female College when it opened in 1865. She was an astronomy professor and director of the observatory, which housed the Fitz telescope that had been purchased by the college’s founder, Matthew Vassar.
As a teacher Mitchell encouraged her students to use science to break free from traditional female roles. She once said: “When (women) come to truth through their investigations … the truth which they get will be theirs, and their minds will work on and on unfettered.”
Now, 191 years after her birth, visitors to the American History Museum can see the larger-than-life telescope that Mitchell used during her time at Vassar. As a landmark object, the telescope guides visitors to the science and innovation wing of the museum, where they can learn about everything from the stars to backyard bomb shelters.
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