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Maria Mitchell - Solar Scientist 1878 - Lisa M. Wayman Skip to content

Maria Mitchell – Solar Scientist 1878

Solar Eclipse 2017

Last weekend Charlie and I were lucky enough to go to Wyoming for the solar eclipse. It was absolutely amazing. Much better than the partial solar eclipses I’ve seen in the past. There was something heart stopping about seeing the sun go totally black during the middle of the day. The white corona was stunningly beautiful. It was mesmerizing for the just over two minutes that we were able to see it with our naked eyes. I’m so glad we went.

The US experienced a total solar ellipse in 1878. In 1878 women were discouraged from going to school. In 1873 Dr. Edward H. Clarke published a scholarly article entitled ‘Sex in Education’  which claimed that educating women would route blood away from the reproductive organs and to the brain. The decrease in blood flow was supposed to decrease women’s fertility and make them masculine. Not everyone believed that education was bad for women’s health.

Vassar College
Vassar college, a women’s educational institution,  first admitted students in 1865 and one of the first professors was Maria Mitchell, an astronomer. Professor Mitchell had discovered a comet using a telescope at her home before working at Vassar College and was already a famous woman scientist.  She was known for getting her students up at night (a definite no no for well bred young women) to study the stars.

Maria Mitchell at her telescope
The 1878 solar eclipse was a huge scientific event. American scientists, including Thomas Edison, were heading to the path of totality.  Professor Mitchell led an expedition of women students from Vassar to Denver to view the eclipse and to take scientific measurements during the event. More important than the science though was the publicity of the event. Professor Mitchell used the trip and the scientific papers published about the event as a way to demonstrate that women could be serious scientists. Oh, and in 1885 the Association of Collegiate Alumnae proved that education doesn’t make women infertile.

I am a serious woman scientist with a PhD in Nursing. I love finding other women in history who paved the way for me. So, I am glad to be able to highlight Professor Maria Mitchell here and say thank you.

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