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In the quiet, picturesque island of Nantucket, in a simple home, lived
William and Lydia Mitchell with their family of ten children. William
had been a school-teacher, beginning when he was eighteen years of
age, and receiving two dollars a week in winter, while in summer he
kept soul and body together by working on a small farm, and fishing.
In this impecunious condition he had fallen in love with and married
Lydia Coleman, a true-hearted Quaker girl, a desce
dant of Benjamin
Franklin, one singularly fitted to help him make his way in life. She
was quick, intelligent, and attractive in her usual dress of white,
and was the clerk of the Friends' meeting where he attended. She
was enthusiastic in reading, becoming librarian successively of two
circulating libraries, till she had read every book upon the
shelves, and then in the evenings repeating what she had read to her
associates, her young lover among them.
When they were married, they had nothing but warm hearts and willing
hands to work together. After a time William joined his father in
converting a ship-load of whale oil into soap, and then a little
money was made; but at the end of seven years he went back to
school-teaching because he loved the work. At first he had charge of
a fine grammar school established at Nantucket, and later, of a school
of his own.
Into this school came his third child, Maria, shy and retiring, with
all her mother's love of reading. Faithful at home, with, as she says,
"an endless washing of dishes," not to be wondered at where there were
ten little folks, she was not less faithful at school. The teacher
could not help seeing that his little daughter had a mind which would
well repay all the time he could spend upon it.
While he was a good school-teacher, he was an equally good student of
nature, born with a love of the heavens above him. When eight years
old, his father called him to the door to look at the planet Saturn,
and from that time the boy calculated his age from the position of
the planet, year by year. Always striving to improve himself, when he
became a man, he built a small observatory upon his own land, that he
might study the stars. He was thus enabled to earn one hundred dollars
a year in the work of the United States Coast Survey. Teaching at
two dollars a week, and fishing, could not always cramp a man of such
aspiring mind.
Brought up beside the sea, he was as broad as the sea in his thought
and true nobility of character. He could see no reason why his
daughters should not be just as well educated as his sons. He
therefore taught Maria the same as his boys, giving her especial drill
in navigation. Perhaps it is not strange that after such teaching,
his daughter could have no taste for making worsted work or Kensington
stitches. She often says to this day, "A woman might be learning seven
languages while she is learning fancy work," and there is little doubt
that the seven languages would make her seven times more valuable as
a wife and mother. If teaching navigation to girls would give us
a thousand Maria Mitchells in this country, by all means let it be
Maria left the public school at sixteen, and for a year attended a
private school; then, loving mathematics, and being deeply interested
in her father's studies, she became at seventeen his helper in the
work of the Coast Survey. This astronomical labor brought Professors
Agassiz, Bache, and other noted men to the quiet Mitchell home, and
thus the girl heard the stimulating conversation of superior minds.
But the family needed more money. Though Mr. Mitchell wrote articles
for _Silliman's Journal_, and delivered an able course of lectures
before a Boston society of which Daniel Webster was president,
scientific study did not put many dollars in a man's pocket. An elder
sister was earning three hundred dollars yearly by teaching, and Maria
felt that she too must help more largely to share the family burdens.
She was offered the position of librarian at the Nantucket library,
with a salary of sixty dollars the first year, and seventy-five the
second. While a dollar and twenty cents a week seemed very little,
there would be much time for study, for the small island did not
afford a continuous stream of readers. She accepted the position,
and for twenty years, till youth had been lost in middle life, Maria
Mitchell worked for one hundred dollars a year, studying on, that she
might do her noble work in the world.
Did not she who loved nature, long for the open air and the blue sky,
and for some days of leisure which so many girls thoughtlessly waste?
Yes, doubtless. However, the laws of life are as rigid as mathematics.
A person cannot idle away the hours and come to prominence. No great
singer, no great artist, no great scientist, comes to honor without
continuous labor. Society devotees are heard of only for a day or a
year, while those who develop minds and ennoble hearts have lasting
Miss Mitchell says, "I was born of only ordinary capacity, but of
extraordinary persistency," and herein is the secret of a great life.
She did not dabble in French or music or painting and give it up; she
went steadily on to success. Did she neglect home duties? Never. She
knit stockings a yard long for her aged father till his death, usually
studying while she knit. To those who learn to be industrious early in
life, idleness is never enjoyable.
There was another secret of Miss Mitchell's success. She read good
books early in life. She says: "We always had books, and were bookish
people. There was a public library in Nantucket before I was born.
It was not a free library, but we always paid the subscription of
one dollar per annum, and always read and studied from it. I remember
among its volumes Hannah More's books and Rollin's _Ancient History_.
I remember too that Charles Folger, the present Secretary of the
Treasury, and I had both read this latter work through before we were
ten years old, though neither of us spoke of it to the other until a
later period."
All this study had made Miss Mitchell a superior woman. It was not
strange, therefore, that fame should come to her. One autumn night,
October, 1847, she was gazing through the telescope, as usual, when,
lo! she was startled to perceive an unknown comet. She at once told
her father, who thus wrote to Professor William C. Bond, director of
the Observatory at Cambridge: --
MY DEAR FRIEND,--I write now merely to say that
Maria discovered a telescopic comet at half-past ten on
the evening of the first instant, at that hour nearly above
Polaris five degrees. Last evening it had advanced
westerly; this evening still further, and nearing the pole.
It does not bear illumination. Maria has obtained its
right ascension and declination, and will not suffer me to
announce it. Pray tell me whether it is one of Georgi's,
and whether it has been seen by anybody. Maria supposes
it may be an old story. If quite convenient, just
drop a line to her; it will oblige me much. I expect to
leave home in a day or two, and shall be in Boston next
week, and I would like to have her hear from you before I
can meet you. I hope it will not give thee much trouble
amidst thy close engagements. Our regards are to all of
you most truly.