This August marks Maria Mitchell’s bicentennial birthday.
On a cool October night in 1847, Maria Mitchell sat on roof of the Pacific National Bank looking up at the stars. The twenty-nine-year-old often took to this perch at the head of Main Street, where her father served as the bank’s president, to study the night sky through her family’s two-inch reflecting telescope. Suddenly, a streak of blurry light ripped overhead. She’d never seen anything like it and ran to get her father. Joining her on the rooftop, he confirmed young Maria’s discovery: a comet.
“Miss Mitchell’s Comet,” as it became known, launched Maria Mitchell to stardom. She was awarded the gold medal of honor from the King of Denmark, became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and earned the title of America’s first female astronomer. Mitchell would go on to become a professor of astronomy at Vassar College, inspiring legions of women and men to quite literally reach for the stars.
While discovering a comet put her on the map, Maria Mitchell’s remarkable story began exactly two hundred years ago this August. She was born on the first of the month in 1818. To celebrate this bicentennial anniversary, the Maria Mitchell Association (MMA) has planned a summer full of celebratory events, including a beachside Perseid Meteor Shower party on August 12th. Mitchell’s actual birthday on August 1st was marked by a children’s parade to the MMA’s aquarium on Washington Street, where students learn the hands-on science that Maria Mitchell championed over the course of her life. “Maria was not just an astronomer; she was a mathematician and a naturalist, too,” says David Gagnon, the executive director of the Maria Mitchell Association. “She really exemplified so much of what Nantucketers are—not only Nantucketers of the 1800s, but Nantucketers of today.” Gagnon is standing outside the newly rehabbed Maria Mitchell Research Center on Vestal Street with Jascin Finger, the deputy director and curator of the Maria Mitchell House.
Gagnon explains that this new research center received additional classrooms, meeting spaces and humidity-controlled display cases to house thousands of specimens and artifacts collected by Maria Mitchell and many other scientists over the past 150 years. “It’s critical that we maintain those collections, because they really capture the natural history of the island,” he says. “It’s an honor for us to be holders of that diversity and history of Nantucket.”
In keeping with Maria Mitchell’s belief in learning by doing, the MMA has an active internship program. It draws students from across the country to live on the island and gain first-hand experience working alongside scientists and astronomers, performing experiments and collecting and analyzing data. “This association not only inspires our interns, but teaches them to be better stewards of this unique environment we live in, whether it be the earth we walk across or the heavens above,” says Finger, who is the resident expert on all things Maria Mitchell.
Just as Finger says this, a girl runs through the grass, her rubber muck boots suctioning each footfall until she reaches the Hinchman House Natural Science Museum, where several other students wait with nets. “I think Maria would love seeing things like that,” Finger says with a smile. “We’re teaching people to love and respect the environment around them.”
A majority of Maria Mitchell’s employees started as interns or volunteers. “My mother always says she saw me walk in that door and never saw me come out,” jokes Finger, who began volunteering here at the age of twelve. Likewise, her colleague Dr. Regina Jorgenson first came to Nantucket as an intern in 1997 and now serves as the director of astronomy.
“I feel so incredibly honored to now lead the very program that was so influential on my own development as a young astrophysicist,” say Dr. Jorgenson. “The MMA is unique in its simultaneous leadership in cutting-edge, scientific research and in creating a supportive and nurturing environment for scientists and students alike. Maria Mitchell’s strong belief in the power of learning by doing and her unwavering support for the pro- motion of equality for women’s opportunities in science are still alive and well here at the MMA.”
So while Maria Mitchell herself may be long gone, her impact on the island still shines bright today at the organization that carries on her legacy exactly two hundred years since her birth. Mitchell’s remarkable life story is a reminder that when you look to the heavens from the top of Main Street, you never know when a new star might be born.