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Lee Lawrence Ansberry Reconquers the World and Reshapes Her Life

 Lee Lawrence developed her talents and won a spot on the Today Show with Dave Garroway. Then she had a terrible accident and had to rebuild her entire life. Lee Lawrence Ansberry used her writing, editing, and people talents her entire life, even when her physical health failed. She left a legacy of courage, faith, and friends.


Dave Garroway and J. Fred Muggs - Wikimedia Commons

by Kathy Warnes

The only thing that Lee Lawrence Ansberry remembered about her accident is waking up in Roosevelt Hospital in New York City in excruciating pain. Her life from that moment in the hospital in New York in 1961 to Bethesda, Maryland in 2002

is a story of reinvention and courage and a life well lived. It is a story of a person  making the transition from physically “abled” to disabled and dealing with the physical, emotional, and intellectual trauma involved. It is the story of examining and dealing with deeply ingrained societal attitudes about disabled people.

 Before her accident, Lee had successfully shaped her life to realize her dream of being in show business.  She was born on July 25, 1923 in Atlanta, Georgia. Her family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, when she was very young and she grew up there. She studied ballet for twelve years with the dream of going to New York and dancing on Broadway.

 After high school, Lee attended Western Reserve University in Cleveland and then decided to move to New York to see if she could make her Broadway dream come true. She spent the World War II years supervising a theater program in a community settlement house and as program supervisor for the American Theater Hospital Wing.

 Lee’s career continued to build from 1944 to 1951. As a technical production supervisor, manager of a theatrical costume company and light designer, she interacted with movie stars and celebrities like Billy Rose, Michael Todd, Cheryl Crawford, Jose Ferrer, Robert Ringling North and J.Walter Thompson.

 Lee Lawrence Goes to Work for Dave Garroway on the Today Show

In 1954, Lee Lawrence took a giant step up the career ladder when she became Associate Producer for NBC’s broadcast of the Hallmark Hall of Fame. She recalled her next move. “Completing a season with Hallmark, I moved on to Wide Wide World, Dave Garroway’s Sunday show. When the show lost its sponsor, I continued my association with Dave Garroway in the position of News and Feature Editor of Today.”

 It took a catastrophic accident in October 1961 to convince Lee that her life had purpose and that she possessed more courage than she had ever imagined. Several tumultuous events converged in Lee’s life at this point. She had endured a bitter divorce from her high school sweetheart and the weekends and holidays that her two sons spent with her ex-husband were bleak, lonely times for her.

 She loved her job as news and features editor of the Today show that Dave Garroway presided over until May 1961. Ambitious and competitive from her start in show business, Lee thrived on the mayhem and fast pace of her job. She and Dave Garroway worked well together and they also developed a close personal friendship. He and her other friends teased her about her small stature, large smile, and cheery, chirping voice.

 Then Dave Garroway left the Today show and the new producer turned out to be a man who had formerly worked for the show. Lee had discovered the error that had prompted Dave Garroway to fire the man and now he was her boss. Naturally he discounted her ideas and almost never gave her assignments. Worried about supporting her sons and an impending visit for her mother, she anxiously and unsuccessfully look for work.

 Lee Lawrence Suffers a Life-Changing Accident

 Then Lee’s accident happened. On Saturday, October 7, 1961, Lee and a friend attended a football game at Columbia University. Lee remembered the football game, but when she woke up six months later in Roosevelt Hospital, she couldn’t remember anything that happened after the football game.

 The police told Lee that somehow she had tumbled over the balcony of her friend’s apartment to the ground three stories below. Lee’s physician, Dr. William Zahm, assessed the gravity of Lee’s injuries. Two vertebrae in the small of her back had not just snapped but had been crushed. Three of her ribs were broken and her pelvis shattered. The sole of her left foot was split and her right foot was a mass of shattered flesh and bone. Her most serious injury involved her left hip where her upper leg bone had been driven through the top of the hip socket.

 The doctors thought that Lee would die from her injuries and shock. Her medical history stated that Lee remained in a coma for about six months, receiving intravenous feeding and around the clock blood transfusions. Moving her little finger contributed to her unremitting pain and her body weight plummeted to fifty one pounds. Before the accident she had always commanded her body to perform nimbly and gracefully. Now, it was a torture chamber, a prison. Her right leg had to be amputated below the knee and she had to be fitted for an artificial leg.

 Lee Lawrence Decides to Live and Laugh Again

From October 8, 1961 through most of 1963, Lee’s life consisted of a routine of hospitals, operations, and physical therapy. Struggling with shock, pain, and depression, Lee remembered the day that she had decided that she had a life left to continue. Lying awake before dawn one morning thinking about some of the other patients in her therapy group, she said to herself, “You’re all right. You’ve got a head and a body, and your mind is whole.”

 From that moment her attitude changed completely and she started reaching out to people again. Lee’s spirit began to heal. Lee’s physical, mental and spiritual healing continued. On October 8, 1962, one year to the day that the ambulance had taken her shattered body to Roosevelt Hospital, Lee’s friend and former boss Dave Garroway invited her out to dinner. Lee didn’t have any problems getting into the limousine that he hired especially for the occasion, but when they got to Garroway’s apartment house, she needed help getting out of the limousine.

 Plagued with a bad back, Garroway reached inside and tried to help Lee out of the car. They both tumbled onto the sidewalk. “Now we’re both cripples,” Garroway blurted, and then covered his mouth in embarrassment. They looked at each other and both laughed uproariously at the ridiculous sight of the well-dressed couple sitting on the sidewalk on 63rd Street in New York City.

The next month, November 1962, featured Lee’s public reentry into the world at the bar mitzvah of her son. Although she vowed not to miss her son’s bar mitzvah, Lee wondered if she could attend as herself and not as a helpless cripple. Her body had drastically changed. She sometimes stumbled on her artificial leg and her face still reflected her months in the hospital and the ordeal that she had endured. She had to sit with dozens of people that she hadn’t seen in more than a year. Her ex-husband and his new wife, once her close friend, would be there. Lee would be sitting close to her former mother-in-law. She had to negotiate steps and a long aisle.

 Lee Lawrence overcame all these obstacles and enjoyed herself as well. With no help, she negotiated the long, curving flight of stairs to the reception and danced with her sons. She drank champagne, talked to her friends, and danced with her doctor, William Zahm. She returned to the hospital flushed with victory and accomplishment.

 Lee Lawrence Moves into Her Own Apartment

 Lee Lawrence spent the years between 1961 and 1963 painfully convincing her shattered body to function again. At this point she knew that her most important activity was leaving the hospital and moving into an apartment on the Upper East Side of New York City. The apartment was compact and convenient, yet large enough for her two sons to live with her again. After her friends cleaned the apartment and moved in her furniture, they gave her a welcome home party her first evening in the apartment.

 About mid evening, Dave Garroway appeared and asked to speak privately with Lee. They went into another room for a few minutes, and then Lee reappeared, her eyes shining. Garroway had asked her to be head of development and research in his television production firm, Once more, Inc., a meaningful name to both of them.

 Garroway reiterated his opinion that Lee was the world’s best researcher. He recalled her slow, painful recuperation at Roosevelt Hospital. “Last fall, that first night, I started visiting her again at the hospital. I told her all my problems so she’d have something to think about besides her own. I even made some up. You know, after awhile, she convinced me those made-up problems were real. She even convinced me she’d solved them for me. As a matter of fact, it’s pretty close to the truth.”

 During the next few years Lee worked for Dave Garroway and later as a free lance public relations consultant. In the early 1960s, Lee moved to Washington D.C. to continue her rehabilitation and to work for the United States government.

 Lee Lawrence Ansberry Drives Her Convertible All Over Washington, D.C.

 According to her papers in The University of Maryland Archives, friends recalled that “She drove her convertible all over the Capitol City with the top down, engaging strangers in smiling conversation, boosting the spirits of friends, waitresses and new acquaintances who were having bad days.”

 Eventually Lee made a commercial, complete with convertible, for the same Maryland car dealers where she bought her convertible. Vibrant and smiling, she talked about her convertible like it was a beloved friend – and indeed, it was.

 Lee’s move to Washington D.C. also brought T. Peter Ansberry into her life. A lawyer, Peter joined the Commerce Department in 1963 as counsel for the Area Redevelopment Administration. He and Lee married and bought a house in Bethesda, Maryland.

 In 1964, Lee entered the federal service as a public information specialist in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Her duties included developing and implementing public awareness campaigns for various programs, arranging media interviews of key persons, and writing news releases, brochures, manuals, newsletters and speeches. She produced several series of public announcements for national television and radio distribution as well as documentary films and television specials.

 Between 1965 and 1983, Lee designed and coordinated White House and Interdepartmental Conferences and Annual meetings, including the White House Conference on Aging, 1971 and 1981, the International Year of Disabled Persons, 1982, and the Conference on Air Pollution, Dental Health, Occupational Health, Gerontology, and Trauma.

 With wry humor, Lee recalled the day she reported to her new assignment at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare as a Public Awareness Specialist. The program was Accident Prevention “and there I was in a wheelchair, with one leg in a non-weight bearing cast and the other cut off at the knee. Truly I was an authoritative source if experience counts.”

 After working with various federal agencies for several years, in 1976 Lee received the assignment to conduct the public awareness program for the White House Conference on Handicapped Individuals. This assignment required all of her communication and writing skills, but she did communicate well because First Lady Rosalynn Carter accepted her finished report.

Lee also worked closely with Bernie Posner, Executive Director of the President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped and she decided that this was the most stimulating of her jobs with the federal service because of her relationships with her fellow workers. She recalled a conversation with Helen, a co-worker of fifteen years. Lee told Helen about her amazement at finding that the new foot for her prosthesis had toes. Helen said, “Lee, I didn’t know you had an artificial leg!”

 Lee Lawrence Ansberry Leaves a Legacy of Courage, Faith, Friends

 October continued to be the fateful month in Lee Lawrence Ansberry’s life. In October 1982, she took a disability retirement from the federal service but continued to earn her living by doing freelance work from her home office. Through the years she had periods of frequent and increasing pain from arthritis and bursitis, and eventually commuting of an office and spending regular hours on the job became impractical for her.

 After her disability retirement from the federal service, Lee continued her freelance work. Her list of honors and awards for over a quarter of a century of producing, editing, and writing includes The White House Press Award – first Place Public Affairs for TV; The Associated Press Award – first place for public affairs; The Albert and Mary Lasker Award – first place for National Network TV; The International Film Festival – Bronze Medal Documentary Film; TV Film Festival of New York –Bronze Medal Documentary Film’ The Atlanta Film Festival-First Place Documentary Film, and the Chicago Film Festival-Certificate of Merit; Public Affairs Programs.

 Like many people, Lee discovered that she was busier than ever after she retired. From 1985-1987, she served as outreach coordinator for two television special programs. A documentary called “The Skin Horse” dealt with the issue of sexuality and people with disabilities and another documentary, “Drinking and Driving, The Toll, The Tears,” called attention to the lenient treatment of intoxicated drivers whose cause accidents. From her home office in Bethesda, Maryland, Lee operated an information program for the National Organization on Disability in Washington D.C. and wrote articles for disability publications, including Ability Magazine.

 Lee Lawrence Ansberry Walks Upright for the First Time in Nearly Two Decades

 In the 1980s, Lee Lawrence Ansberry telephoned a friend to tell him that she had a surprise for him when he came to the disability conference they were attending together in Washington D.C. When he met her in the conference room, she walked up to him to greet him. She no longer had to walk with a stoop. New surgery had replaced her hip with mesh, and for the first time since her accident in 1961, she could walk upright. Overwhelmed and speechless, her friend hugged her.

 Another friend reminisced about her attitude toward life. “She loved being the center of attention. In truth, always had. Being surrounded by friends was important to her. Recalling glory days to an interested audience kept her going. But she never used her disability to generate attention, only her personality and endless stories of strange and funny happenings among the famous names in show business.”

 Lee faced other physical challenges in the mid 1990s when surgery to ease constant pain in her lower spine left her unable to walk unaided or drive her car. Her convertible had been her mobility and freedom and she had parked it boldly in front of her favorite restaurants in Bethesda while their owners rushed out to greet her. Now she needed friends to drive her to church and grocery shopping.

 Still indomitable, Lee worked on mastering the computer so she could continue to work at home where she operated a telephone answering service for the National Organization on Disability. Her physical challenges accumulated. She fell and broke her wrist and in the year 2,000 alone endured open heart surgery, surgery to remove cancer from her lung, and she had a morphine pump implanted to control chronic pain. Her blood circulation became a problem and she was often confused. She suffered frequent anxiety attacks.

 Eventually Lee moved to Potomac Valley Nursing and Wellness Center.  Lee enjoyed watching old movies in her new home. She regaled her fellow residents with stories of Dave Garroway and Billy Rose. Joe Ryan, a writer for the Garroway Show in the 1950s came to visit Lee. They pored over photo albums of The Today Show gang on location in Italy and Spain, and talked and laughed about Today Show people and production memories.

 Lee Lawrence Ansberry died on August 26, 2002. Friends from all over the country remembered her with love and affection. Friends from The Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda talked about her courage. They said, “Despite her pain, Lee Lawrence Ansberry has given constant encouragement, comfort, and inspiration to her friends these many years.”

 But Lee herself spoke her own legacy. In an interview with Dennis Wholey, she recalled the point during her two year convalescence after her accident when she decided to live. Lee said, “So one morning I woke up and I was watching the daylight come. Slowly I began to realize that I did know the beauty of it, and that my mind was functioning. I thought I did have something that was still me, and maybe this was going to be a way to move on in living.”

 Lee Lawrence Ansberry moved on in living, lived and left a legacy of courage for others grappling with disabilities of all kinds in their own lives.


 "The Strange Case of Lee Lawrence.” Saturday Evening Post, April 20, 1963.

Garrison, Kevin S. “It’s Just a Matter of Balance. Print Vintage, 2005.

Rosenberg, Jothy. Who Says I Can’t? Bascom Hill Book, 2010.

Lee Lawrence Papers, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.

Personal Correspondence, Lee Lawrence




Maria Mitchell - America's First Woman Astronomer-Demonstrated Women's Scientific Apititude

by Kathy Warnes

“We have a hunger of the mind. We ask for all of the knowledge around us and the more we get, the more we desire.” Maria Mitchell

“Every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to
God.” Maria Mitchell

Throughout her life Maria Mitchell, the first woman astronomer in America, the first Vassar professor of either gender, and the first woman member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences worked to discover laws of astronomy to express her personal hymn of praise to God. Throughout her life, Maria Mitchell read or recited Joseph Addison’s hymn, The Spacious Firmament on High, when she felt discouraged or needed inspiration.

“The spacious firmament on high, with all the blue ethereal sky,
and spangled heavens, A shining frame, their great Original proclaim.”

From an early age Maria Mitchell appreciated the “spacious firmament” and the “blue ethereal sky” over her native Nantucket, Massachusetts. Maria Mitchell enjoyed two important advantages at the beginning of her life: her home and her family. Born August 1, 1818, she was the third of the ten children of Quakers William and Lydia Mitchell. Like most Quakers, William Mitchell passionately believed that girls should receive the same education as boys, and that men and women were intellectually equal. William taught school, worked for the United States Coastal Survey and practiced astronomy on an amateur basis. He taught Maria astronomy and navigation.

Her Nantucket birthplace also served Maria’s emotional and intellectual development well. At that time, Nantucket was an important whaling port and sailors had to learn celestial navigation as a survival skill. Whalers often left their wives for months and even years at a time to manage domestic affairs while they were at sea. The women of Nantucket operated in an atmosphere of relative independence and equality, although women in America were denied property rights and the right to vote.

Exceptional Maria Mitchell Received an Exceptional Education

In her early childhood years, Maria received her education from her parents and Elizabeth Gardener’s School. Later she attended the North Grammar School where her father was principal. In 1829, when Maria was 11, William Mitchell built a school on Howard Street and Maria attended as a student and her father’s teaching assistant.

Maria absorbed knowledge helping her father. When they returned from voyages, Nantucket whalers brought their chronometers of their ships to William Mitchell to be “rated,” and he used a sextant to rate them. He taught Maria to use the sextant and he performed his rating procedures in the back yard of the Mitchell house on Vestal Street.

William also installed a simple reflecting telescope in the Mitchell’s back yard and neighbors crowded in the yard to look at the moon. Eventually, William bought a small Dolland telescope and removed the parlor window in the house on Vestal Street to install it. He mounted the Dolland telescope in front of it and he and Maria practiced astronomy. In 1831, a total annular eclipse of the sun centered over Nantucket and twelve-year-old Maria stood by her father’s side counting the seconds as he observed the eclipse through the Dolland telescope. Maria continued to “sweep” the sky for the rest of her life.

Professors Louis Agassiz and Alexander Dallas Bache and other scientists frequently visited the Mitchell’s home on Vestal Street and Maria became accustomed to hearing stimulating scientific conversations. Her father William encouraged her to observe and contribute to his work in astronomy. She continued to study history and science with her father, focusing especially on astronomy.

When William Mitchell’s Howard Street School closed, Maria attended the school that Cyrus Peirce, a Unitarian minister, had founded for young ladies. His school was the first normal school in America. She worked as his teaching assistant before opening her own school in 1835 when she was seventeen. With high hopes, she rented a school room on Traders’ Lane and put an advertisement about her school in the newspapers, but her school closed after a year of operation.

“Their Great Original Proclaim” – The Musical Mitchells

Both William Mitchell and his wife Lydia enjoyed music, although Quakers frowned upon musical expression. The Mitchell children learned songs from their playmates and as they grew older one of the Mitchell daughters bought a piano. Tradition and an anecdote in Maria’s diary said that Maria donated some of her salary towards the purchase of the piano.

In the beginning the Mitchells kept the piano in an outbuilding, but Maria and her sisters decided that the piano must be moved to the house. A married daughter invited the senior Mitchells to tea in another part of Nantucket, and Maria and her helpers moved the piano into the house in a upper room where the chronometers and books were kept. As their parents entered the front door, Maria gave the signal and one of her siblings played a lively piano tune which her parents quietly approved.

Eventually word about the music at the Mitchells spread around town and their fellow Quakers put William and Lydia Mitchell “under dealings,” a very serious matter. William and Lydia Mitchell quietly fought back. William Mitchell enjoyed the advantage of holding the property where the Quaker monthly meetings were held and he insisted that he didn’t play on the piano. He also argued that he didn’t want to drive his children away from home to enjoy their musical pleasure. Considering the future of their monthly meeting place, the music naysayers decided to say no more about the music at the Mitchells.

Lydia Mitchell wisely decided to say no more about the music and just enjoy it. William Mitchell quietly told the story and the news circulated around town. Several other young Quaker girls decided to indulge their musical desires and eventually music became such a part of Quaker heritage that the Friends’ School at Providence, Rhode Island featured music in its regular curriculum.

Miss Maria Mitchell Became a Librarian

Since the Mitchell family lived in modest circumstances, Maria felt compelled to earn her own living and in 1836, eighteen-year-old Maria accepted the position of librarian in Nantucket’s Atheneum Library. The Atheneum Library opened only in the afternoons and on Saturday evenings, and afternoon visitors were relatively scarce, so Maria had time to explore and read the books. Most of her afternoon visitors were elderly gentlemen of leisure who enjoyed intelligent conversation. While the gentlemen of leisure talked, Maria closed her book and worked at her knitting. Her knitting and the friendships she made at the library both lasted for years.

Maria also made friends with and influenced the young people of Nantucket. She served as a confidant and friend to many of them and as they grew older many thanked Maria for guiding them in their reading and personal lives. Maria worked at the Nantucket Atheneum Library drawing a salary of one hundred dollars a year for over twenty years.

Miss Mitchell’s Comet

While Maria Mitchell worked at the Atheneum Library, her father William accepted a new position as cashier of the Pacific Bank. His new position included a new house attached to the bank and he built an observatory on the roof and installed a new four inch telescope. With Maria’s help, William performed star observations for the United States Coast Guard.

No matter the circumstances of her life or the number of guests in the parlor, Maria still spent every clear evening on the house top “sweeping” the heavens with her telescope. On the evening of October 1, 1847, she slipped away from a party, put on her “regimentals,” and taking lantern in hand, she climbed to the roof. She adjusted her telescope and peering through its lens she saw a star five degrees above the North Star, a spot where she had seen no star before that. Maria knew she had observed the location correctly, because she had memorized the sky, but to verify her belief that the star was really a comet, she recorded the comet’s coordinates. She returned the next evening and the star had moved, strengthening her belief that it was a comet. (Its modern designation is C/1847 T1).

Maria reported her discovery to her father, who confirmed her observation and despite her urging for caution, William Mitchell wrote to Professor William Bond at Harvard University Observatory, reporting Maria’s discovery. On December 17, 1831, Frederick VI., King of Denmark, had offered a gold medal worth twenty ducats to the first discoverer of a telescopic comet. When Father Francesco de Vico of Rome discovered the same comet two days later than Maria, the King decided to award him the prize before the news of Maria’s discovery reached Europe. After prolonged negotiations, Frederick VI’s son awarded the medal for discovering the comet to Maria Mitchell and named it “Miss Mitchell’s Comet.”

Miss Mitchell Came into her Own as a Scientist and Activist

Maria kept her position at the Nantucket Atheneum Library, but word of her work in astronomy spread around America and Europe and she received letters and visits from scientists and admirers. In 1848, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences accepted her as its first female member and in 1850, The Association for the Advancement of Science counted her as one of the first women in its ranks.

In 1849, Admiral Charles Henry Davis of the United States Nautical Almanac Office offered Maria a position as a compiler of tables for the American Nautical Almanac including computing tables of positions of the planet Venus. She gladly accepted the position and held it in addition to her other work for nineteen years. Professor Alexander Dallas Bache of the United States Coast Survey alsohired her to assist an astronomical team at Mount Independence, Maine. She started traveling to scientific meetings as well.

Through all of her activities and honors, Maria continued her nightly sky sweeping and exploration. Her diary entry of March 2, 1854, noted that “I ‘swept’ last night two hours, by three periods. It was a grand night—not a breath of air, not a fringe of a cloud, all clear, all beautiful. I really enjoy that kind of work, but my back soon becomes tired, long before the cold chills me. I saw two nebulae in Leo with which I was not familiar, and that repaid me for the time…”

Maria also explored spiritually and intellectually. In 1842, she adopted Unitarian principles, leaving her Quaker heritage. She attended the Unitarian Church, but never became a member. In 1854, she wrote in her diary:”There is a God, and he is good, I say to myself. I try to increase my trust in this, my only article of creed.”

She became an ardent abolitionist and to protest slavery, she stopped wearing cotton clothing.

Miss Mitchell Toured Europe Twice

Since childhood Maria longed to travel to Europe and for years she lived frugally and saved money for her trip. She dressed simply and didn’t spend much money on herself, although she did buy gifts for others. Her diary entry of December 16, 1855, revealed that she felt that the year 1855 was a hard year because of the death of three of her closest friends and the illness of her mother. Then she recounted her blessings, including her mother’s recovery from a serious illness, the fact that she had observed more and the fact that she had added to her savings for the European trip and hoped for Europe in 1856.

In 1857, Maria accepted an offer from rich Chicago banker General H.K. Swift, to chaperone his daughter Prudence on a trip to the American West and South and then to Europe. At the beginning of her journey she visited her sister Phebe and Phebe’s husband Joshua Kendall who taught at the Meadville Seminary in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and her visit heightened her insight into the cultural differences between northern and southern states. Visiting the South, she experienced slavery first hand and the restricted lives of southern white women.

For her European tour Maria carried introductory letters to leading scientists and during her two memorable European visits she became acquainted with astronomer William Herschel, scientist Alexander von Humboldt, and Mary Somerville, the noted woman astronomer. She toured observatories in Greenwich, Cambridge, and after complicated negotiations with papal authorities who were reluctant to allow a woman to enter, the Vatican observatory. She wrote in her diary:”I did not know that my heretic feet must not enter the sanctuary, that my woman’s robe must not brush the seats of learning.”

During her second trip abroad she spent an extended visit with the family of Russian astronomer Professor G.W. Struve of the Imperial Observatory in Pulkova . Maria met many important scientists and received much recognition during her European tours.

Soon after she returned from Europe, Miss Elizabeth Peabody, representing American women, presented Maria Mitchell with an equatorial telescope. Maria’s mother Lydia died in 1861, and a few months after her death William Mitchell and Maria moved to Lynn, Massachusetts. Maria had purchased a small house and installed the little observatory there that she had brought from Nantucket. Depressed by the death of her mother, Maria buried herself in her observations and in her work for the Nautical Almanac.

Miss Maria Mitchell – Vassar Professor

Matthew Vassar founded Vassar Female College in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1861, as the first American college exclusively for women and based on the principle that women should receive the same education offered in men’s colleges. He also insisted that women in a women’s college should be taught by women teachers. It took Matthew Vassar several years to overcome the opposition of the board of trustees, but in 1865, he appointed Maria Mitchell Professor of Astronomy and director of the college observatory.

As Professor of Astronomy part of Maria’s equipment was a twelve inch telescope, the third largest in the United States, and she began to explore the surfaces of Jupiter and Saturn and photograph the stars. As the only female faculty member, Maria refused to enforce the societal rules of female behavior expected at the time. The male faculty members respected Maria’s expertise, but they expected her to teach astronomy to female students while insisting that they were not allowed outside at night!

Maria often invited her students to the observatory at night to witness meteor showers and investigate astronomical events. Maria and her students observed and recorded the paths of 4,000 meteors and she wrote many valuable articles about the satellites of Saturn and Jupiter.

In 1865, astronomers William Birt and John Lee named a crater on the moon Mitchell Crater in Maria’s honor, recognition that was rare for women scientists in the Nineteenth Century.

Miss Maria Mitchell Advocated Women’s Rights

From childhood, Maria Mitchell advocated women’s potential, and she became more strongly feminist as she grew older. She became friends with women’s rights advocates like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell and Antoniette Brown Blackwell and struggled with them for equality in professions and reforms in education and health issues for women.

Maria Mitchell encouraged her students to think of themselves as professional women, asking “Do you know of any case in which a boys’ college has offered a Professorship to a woman? Until you do, it is absurd to say that the highest learning is within the reach of American women.”

Many of her female students forged careers in astronomy and other fields.

Maria earned many firsts for women and honors in her own right. In 1869, she became the first woman elected to the American Philosophical Society. In 1873, she helped found the American Association for the Advancement of Women and she served as the president of the Association from 1874 to 1876. In 1873, she attended the first meeting of the Women’s Congress and when America celebrated its centennial in 1876, she chaired the Women’s Congress held in Philadelphia. In 1887, Columbia College, now Columbia University, awarded her an honorary LL.D., Dr. of Science and Philosophy.

Miss Mitchell Retired from Vassar, but Still Swept the Heavens

 Retiring from Vassar in 1888 because of ill health, Maria continued ‘sweeping the sky’ in Lynn, Massachusetts, where her sister lived. She died on June 28, 1889, of a brain disease.At her funeral on Nantucket Island, Vassar President James Monroe Taylor said, “If I were to select for comment the one most striking trait of her character, I should name her genuineness. There was no false note in Maria Mitchell’s thinking or utterance. Doubt she might and she might linger in doubt, but false she could not be…”.

In 1902, Maria’s friends and supporters founded the Maria Mitchell Association on Nantucket. In 1905 she was elected to the Hall of Fame of Great Americans at New York University and in 1994, she was elected to the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York. Maria Mitchell’s birth place on Nantucket is open to visitors during the summer.


Maria Mitchell Society Nantucket

Maria Mitchell Observatory- Vassar College

Brooklyn Eagle, June 28, 1889

Albers, Henry. Maria Mitchell: A Life in Journals and Letters. College Avenue Press, 2001.

Baker, Rachel. America’s First Woman Astronomer, Maria Mitchell. New York: J. Messner, 1960.

Bergland, Renee. Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science. Boston: Beacon Press, 2008.

Booker, Margaret Moore. Among the Stars: The Life of Maria Mitchell. Millhill Press, 2007.

Gormley, Beatrice. Maria Mitchell: The Soul of an Astronomer. Eerdmans Publishing Co,1995.

Kendall, Phebe Mitchell. Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals, Lee and Shepard, 1896.

Mitchell, Henry. Biographical Notice of Maria Mitchell. 1889.

Wright, Helen. Sweeper in the Sky: The Life of Maria Mitchell. New York: Macmillan Company, 1949.



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