Recently I was doing a little research on Abbott Lowell Cummings, the famous architectural historian. Cummings is well known as the director of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA) for many years, and author of works on early New England architecture.
In an interview conducted when he was given the distinguished Henry Francis duPont Award, sponsored by the Winterthur Museum, Cummings credited his grandmother, Lucretia Amelia Stow Cummings, with having greatly influenced his life: “She was a scientist by training, a Vassar graduate who had studied astronomy. She drilled into me the need to be very factual.”
This mention of astronomy at Vassar rung a bell. Although virtually all of my old photographs are in Ohio, I happen to have in Taiwan some early cabinet photos of Vassar College, including one of “Miss Mitchell, Professor of Astronomy”, and one of the Vassar Observatory.
It turns out that Maria Mitchell (1818-1889) was quite an interesting woman. Already a distinguished scientist who among other accomplishments discovered “Miss Mitchell’s Comet” in 1847, she later became the first instructor hired at the newly-formed Vassar College, in 1865.
In 1902, the Maria Mitchell Association was founded to honor her, and this society still operates her birthplace as a museum, as well as the Maria Mitchell Observatory and several other science museums on Nantucket. Wikipedia additionally tells us that she is in the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and that the WWII ship the SS Maria Mitchell as well as the Moon’s Mitchell Crater were named after her.
|Miss Mitchell, parasol at the ready, takes the air with her students.|
Miss Mitchell can be spotted at the base of the observatory stairs. As an aside for the architecturally-minded, this close-up of the arch-top window in action reveals some construction details, and also how double-hung windows were opened from the top as well as the bottom to control ventilation.
It is easy to see why Lucretia Stow admired Maria Mitchell. Dean Rogers of Vassar’s Special Collections department kindly confirmed that Ms. Stow belonged to the Vassar Class of 1874, and that Miss Mitchell was the only astronomy professor until 1886.
Lucretia Stow Cummings herself has not been forgotten. Just last year in a special exhibit, historian Rebecca Edwards honored “Lucretia Stow, who sharply reduced infant mortality rates as head of Connecticut's Public Health Nursing Association, also led a campaign to improve the state's rural schools.”
It is interesting to contemplate the chain of influence involving scholarship, history, and activism, that started back in the early nineteenth century with Maria Mitchell, was transmitted to her student Lucretia Stow, and then in turn to her grandson, Abbott Lowell Cummings, who then influenced many at SPNEA, Yale and elsewhere.
(All original photographs belong to the author.)