Maria Mitchell’s Attic
Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

March 15, 1858.  Today an eclipse of the sun was to come off, and with Mr. B and the Westons I went to the Observatory of the Capitol to look at the phenomenon … . The old gent speaks no English, but the bad French of both of us made a language.  He had placed three telescopes of ordinary mounting in a terrace which overlooks the Forum, and as it was very cloudy, we looked at the magnificent views of the Alban and Sabine Mts. instead of looking at the Eclipse … . A dozen young men suddenly formed into a line and Prof. Calandrelli presented his pupils, who gracefully lifted their caps.  They were fine looking fellows of about 16 and they all smiled as they greeted me and were evidently pleased at being noticed … .

Maria Mitchell was in Rome in 1858, a part of her European trip that started with her serving as a young woman’s chaperone.  When the young woman, Prudence Swift, was called home due to her father’s bankruptcy (thus no more funds for the trip), Maria Mitchell remained and continued to travel.  She was the first woman to gain entry to the Vatican Observatory – not even one of her heroines, Mary Somerville, ever gained entry.


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.)


Answer to Where is This?

This is an observatory and to be exact it is Maria Mitchell’s Observatory at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.  It is now a National Historic Landmark.  What you see in the niche is the bust of Maria Mitchell that was sculpted by Emma Brigham as a gift from the Vassar College Class of 1877 to the College.  The MMA now has a copy (only the second one ever made from the original – the first is at the Hall of Fame which Maria Mitchell was inducted into) of the bust thanks to a generous gift from Mr. James Storrow.

When Vassar College was built, there were only two buildings on campus when it opened in 1865 – Main Building and the Observatory.  Everything happened in      Main – students lived there, went to classes, dined there, professors were housed – and then you had the quieter Observatory a bit away from Main where Maria Mitchell lived with her father, conducted classes, observed, and welcomed the luminaries (authors, royalty, scientists, women’s rights advocates, and others) of the day into her home.

And congrats to Monica Flegg who guessed what this was last week!


Maria Mitchell in Her Own Words

June 18, 1876.  I had imagined the Emperor of Brazil [Dom Pedro II] to be a dark swarthy tall man of 45 years; that he would not really have a crown upon his head, but that I should feel it was somewhere around … and that I should know I was in Royal presence.  But he turns out to be a large old man, say 65, broad-headed and broad shouldered, with a big white beard and a very pleasant, even chatty        manner … . As he entered the Dome, he turned to ask who the photographs of Father and Mother were.  Once in the Dome, he seemed to feel at home.  To my astonishment he asked me if Alvan Clark made the glass of the Equatorial … I remarked, “you have been in observatories before,” and he said, “Oh yes, Cambridge and Washington.”  He seemed much more interested in the observatory than I could possibly expect … .

Maria had the opportunity to show many well-known people through the Vassar College Observatory which was not just her place of work, but her home as well.  Throughout her life, Maria met with and maintained friendships with some of the    well-know scientists and other luminaries of her time including, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sir George Airy, Sir John Herschel, Harriet Hosmer, Dorthea Dix, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Susan B. Anthony to name just a few. 


Maria Mitchell in Her Own Words

May 20, 1882.  Vassar is getting pretty.  I gathered lilies of the valley this morning.  The young robins are out in a tree close by us, and the phoebe has built, as usual, under the front steps.  I am rushing dome poetry, but so far showing no alarming symptoms of brilliancy.

Maria, like her father and the rest of her family, was a keen observer of nature, taking daily walks wherever she might find herself.  Her father, William Mitchell, led almost daily nature walks for his students when he was teaching on Nantucket.  This journal entry is written about seventeen years after Maria began at Vassar College and the “dome poetry” she refers to is for her students.  At the end of each school year, Maria hosted “dome parties” at the observatory for her students where “celestial refreshments” were served along with wonderful poems Maria wrote about her students, and they about her.


What is This?


In 2007, I had the great fortune to travel to Vassar College to do some research in the Vassar College Archives and Special Collections and to stay and investigate the campus for a week.  Through a generous and anonymous fund supported by a Vassar alumna who wants to encourage renewed ties between the MMA and Vassar, I was able to go through Maria’s papers that remain at the College.  When she left in 1888 due to failing health, she intended to just take a break from Vassar and then return.  Unfortunately, her health did not allow for this and thus her sister and a niece traveled to Vassar to pack up her things, choosing to leave some of her papers with the college – in particular those that were more administrative in nature.  The MMA has the bulk of her papers however, including her personal papers and letters. 

When I was not in the archives, I was crawling about campus, including Maria’s observatory, and was taken on a tour inside before the building was renovated to become the new home for the Education Department.  The Vassar Observatory is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the Observatory was very much in its original condition when I walked in.  I could feel Maria and her students about me.  Marks from more than a century of use remained on the floor where equipment had been moved, the beautiful staircase from Maria’s rooms into the dome where Maria and her students had once posed for a photographer welcomed me, and then I came across this small closet on the first floor below her rooms and the dome.  Look closely.  Despite the twenty-first century debris, do you see the dates written on each shelf?  THAT is Maria’s handwriting noting the dates where she likely shelved the glass plates she took of the night sky both on her own and with her students.  Now how incredible it that – that in 2007 – and even today I am told – those are still there?!