Thursday, February 2, 2012

An Astronomical Coincidence at Old Vassar

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.

Maria Mitchell

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.

Observatory at Vassar

Here is an early photo of Vassar’s 19th century observatory, which in 1865 was the first building to be completed at the new college, demonstrating its commitment both to Miss Mitchell and to a first-class education for women. Today this is also known as the Maria Mitchell Observatory.

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.)


  1. Are you sure Miss Mitchell is a she???????????

  2. Hello:
    Well, Miss Mitchell must certainly have been a formidable woman to have accomplished so much in this particular field in the C19. And yes, one can only imagine the influences that ensued between these women and no doubt countless others who attended Vassar during those formative years.

    We do so love coming across connections such as these between people of a certain time. The networking between families and institutions is so intriguing and fascinating. Small world!

  3. Hello Lindaraxa, She certainly doesn't look very friendly, does she? Other accounts I have come across describe her as rather strict, but everyone seemed to respect her.

    By the way, I am at this minute preparing your recipe for Welsh Rabbit for some friends later, which was such a success the last time I made it, and which I recommend.

  4. Hello Jane and Lance, Yes, Miss Mitchell was multi-talented, and her diaries make fascinating reading. She really lived 19th century life to the fullest.

    Professor Edward's article discusses the early history of the American women's colleges and seminaries, and how seriously they took education.

  5. Hello, Parnassus - Thanks for including the link to the article on Cummings — he sounds like a wonderful and creative teacher. I'm also intrigued that Yale has a Professor of American Decorative Arts. I'd love to take that course!

  6. Hello Mark, Abbott Lowell Cummings took such interest in and showed such enthusiasm for every student's project that students were inspired to work harder because you knew your paper was important to him. His approach to architecture was rather scientific, as seen in his books; everything is based on measurement and research, not speculation.

  7. How appropriate and timely is this post!

    As I read it, I was thinking that Abbott Lowell Cummings might have had the same relationship with his grandmother, Lucretia Amelia Stow Cummings, as Charles Darwin had with his grandfather Erasmus Darwin. Some families are very special.

  8. Hello Hels, I agree with you that it is a wonderful thing to be inspired by your grandparents, especially when they are as distinguished and interesting as Erasmus Darwin or Lucretia Stow.


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