Maria Mitchell’s Attic
An Astronomer

I first remember her standing at the entry to Loines Observatory with a small metal clicker in her hand.  It was summer and it was dark.  Mosquitoes were swarming and we all smelled like bug spray.  It was a Wednesday night and we had just made the long – or so it seemed in those days – journey from Tom Nevers for an Open Night – the event of the week for my family.  She was sort of quiet and reserved but she reached out to my brother each Wednesday night when we arrived at the top of the stairs by saying, “Want to press the clicker?”  Sounds like not much but to a nine year old budding astronomer, my brother was very excited to “click” his family members into the open night.

I got to know her a little more as I began to volunteer at the Mitchell House.  I think she probably saw me as a pesky kid, but she seemed to warm up to me over time.  Maybe I proved to her that I had some staying power – that I was not just a kid who got pushed into doing some summer volunteering.  (Twenty-five plus years later I am still here and curator – really?!  Time flies!)  She was an interesting person, an incredibly intelligent woman who had a deep love and respect for Maria Mitchell, but she did not reveal too much about herself.

When I completed my masters’ degree in 2010, the MMA very nicely congratulated me via our monthly “eComet.”  A week or so later, I went into my email and saw a sender with a familiar name, one I was completely shocked to see as I had never received an email from this person.  The sender was “emiliab.”  I was surprised, worried, and wondered what it was.  I saved it.  It reads: 

“Congratulations on your degree.  I am hoping you have a computer-readable copy of your thesis you can send me by email … I’ll do without the pictures if I can read {your} paper that way.  Thanks!  Lee (Emilia) Belserene.” 

Wow!  I practically burst my buttons – I was so proud and honored that she wanted to read my research.    

I am so lucky to have worked for the MMA for all these years and to now serve as the Mitchell House curator.  I have been fortunate to have such amazing people in my life – and so many of them tied to the MMA.  What inspirations and mentors – what an incredible place and people to have grown up around and to be involved with today.  Not many can be surrounded by such inspiring people – and such incredible women like Lee. 

This is just one small memory of Lee Belserene.  She served as the MMA’s astronomer and director of the Observatory from September 1978 through September 1991.  She was a Life Member of the MMA.  Emilia Pisano Belserene, Ph.D. passed away in Washington State on December 11, 1012 just one day shy of her 90th birthday.  She leaves a daughter, Rita.

(Lee is on the left in this image and the MMA’s Librarian, Jane Stroup, is in the middle.  The image was taken at Jane’s home.)

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Dec. 26, 1854.  They were wonderful men, the early astronomers.  That was a great conception, which now seems to us so simple.  That the earth turns upon its axis and a still greater one that it revolves about the sun.  To show this last was worth a man’s lifetime and it really almost cost the life of Galileo.

Sometimes we are ready to think that they had a wider field than us for speculation, that truth being all unknown it was easier to take the first steps in its paths, but is the region of truth limited?  Is it not infinite?  Is there less truth now than in the days of Galileo?

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Sept. 12, 1854

I am just through with a summer and a summer is to me always a trying ordeal.  I have determined not to spend so much time at the Atheneum another season.  To put someone in my place who shall see all the strange faces, and hear the          strange talk … . My visitors … have been of the average sort.  Four women have been delighted to make my acquaintance, three men have thought themselves in the presence of a superior being, one has offered me 25 cents because I reached him the key of the museum {her duties as librarian included the care and cataloging of the museum collection – items from all over the world brought back on Nantucket whaleships and from the travels of islanders and others}, one woman has opened a correspondence with me and several have told me that they knew friends of           mine … . I have become hardened to all, neither compliment nor quarter dollar rouses any emotion.  My fit of humility which has troubled me all summer, is shaken by the first cool breeze of Autumn and the first walk taken without perspiration.

Due to her fame as the woman astronomer who had discovered a comet, Mara Mitchell found that many visitors to Nantucket came to the Atheneum specifically to see her.  A private and modest person, Maria found this fame trying and difficult.