Beyond Streep, Vassar alumnae reach for the stars

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The Old Observatory was named after the famous astronomer Maria Mitchell, the first female professor Vassar hired. (Photo courtesy of Vassar College)

For some Vassar alums, shooting for the moon was more than just a cliché.

When it comes to stardom, many famous alumnae may immediately come to your mind, particularly in the arts; poet Edna St. Vincent Millay ’17, writer Elizabeth Bishop ’34, and, more recently, actresses Meryl Streep ’71 and Lisa Kudrow ’85 all attended the College. However, Vassar has also fostered an impressive number of stars in a less visible field: astronomy.

Though perhaps not quite as well known, these alumnae, heavily influenced by famous astronomer Maria Mitchell, have gone on to make important discoveries and have done research still relevant to today’s astronomers.

Mitchell, a pioneer in the field of astronomy as well as the first female professor hired to Vassar, moved into the Old Observatory (still referred to as the Mitchell Observatory) upon its completion in 1865.

The Observatory, located northwest of Main Building near the Baldwin Medical Center, is now reserved for Education classes and specific programming. However, if you’d like to view the starry night with more than just your two eyes, the Class of 1951 Observatory, located on the edge of campus, holds open observation nights each Wednesday during the school year from nine to 11 p.m (weather permitting).

Perhaps due in part to her constant eye on the sky, as a professor and researcher, Mitchell was an invaluable mentor to her students, publishing their findings alongside hers in Silliman’s Journal—known today as the American Journal of Science, the longest-running scientific journal of note founded at Yale in 1818. She took particular interest in Mary Watson Whitney, a member of Vassar’s first graduating class in 1868. Whitney grew close to Mitchell and, upon graduating, accompanied her and seven other graduates to Iowa in order to observe the 1869 total eclipse of the sun.

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Ashley Pecorelli ’16 is The Misc’s Copy Editor.

Inspired by her adviser, Whitney ambitiously followed the pursuit of cosmic knowledge by attending lectures at Harvard and earning a master’s degree from Vassar in 1872. Before returning to the College as Mitchell’s assistant in 1881, she studied mathematics and celestial mechanics at the University of Zurich for three years and then taught at Waltham High School. Whitney gave up a research position at Harvard in order to succeed Mitchell as the chair of Vassar’s astronomy department in 1889—without this decision, our Astronomy Department might not be as renowned as it is today.

Because it was so difficult for women to gain academic clout at the time, as the chair, Whitney focused her intellectual pursuits on encouraging research projects for publication. She and her students concentrated in particular on variable stars, asteroids, comets and measurement with photographic plates, as well as the mastery of the 12-inch telescope. Under her direction, the Vassar Observatory published 102 articles and documents. Today, Vassar’s astronomy students continue similar research through a number of astrophysics courses, as well as through the study of various observational techniques.

Following Mitchell’s footsteps in leading the Department to greatness, in 1894, Whitney hired her own student, Caroline Furness ’91, as her assistant. Furness received a PhD from Columbia in 1900, and published “Introduction to the Study of Variable Stars” in 1915, considered an important standard text for the study of astronomy at the time. She became the department chair in the same year and was named Alumna Maria Mitchell Professor of Astronomy in 1916. In addition to her many influential scientific pursuits, Furness visited Japan often; as a member of the National Council of Women and the Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defense, she was a vocal advocate for friendship between the women of Japan and America and often wrote on the topic.

Perhaps just as important as their scientific achievements, these women made a lifelong effort to further the recognition of women’s rights, inside and outside of academia; all three women voiced the importance of suffrage. In particular, Mitchell encouraged her students to be self-reliant and to value discovery over authority, both in terms of research and everyday life in a male-dominated world. Mitchell and her successors fought to prove that women could publish sustainable academic research alongside men and be offered the same opportunities for study, an endeavor that helped form the Vassar we attend today.

So, whether your celestial studies entail studying the research of our brilliant Professor of Astronomy Debra Elmegreen or just looking up at the sky after a Deece dinner, count your lucky stars and remember to thank these Vassar women.

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