Maria Wants Her Sextant Back

Buried in Haverford’s Special Collections is a brief letter from Maria Mitchell to E.D. Cope.[1] When she wrote to Cope, Mitchell was a senior member of the scientific community. She was director of Vassar College’s observatory, where she was also professor of astronomy. On October 1, 1847, when she was 29, she had discovered a comet,[2] which discovery brought her considerable fame (and a gold medal from the King of Denmark). Following her discovery she was elected the first woman fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She spent the next two decades working for the U.S. Nautical Almanac Office computing ephemerides for Venus, was appointed to the American Philosophical Society in 1865, and in the same year she became the first female faculty member at Vassar College when it opened. By any measure, Mitchell was an accomplished scholar.

The first building completed at Vassar College was the observatory, long called the Maria Mitchell Observatory. Read more about it here, which is where I got the image.
The first building completed at Vassar College was the observatory, long called the Maria Mitchell Observatory. Read more about it here, which is where I got the image.

Cope too was an accomplished scholar, though his area of expertise was paleontology rather than astronomy. Although he had taught briefly at Haverford College, he didn’t seem to enjoy teaching, complaining that the students required too much time and attention, and so retired. His irritation was not limited to students and their incessant questions. When he left Haverford and moved into Philadelphia (his adjoining townhouses still stand at the corner of 21st and Pine St.) he became so annoyed by the herding of livestock down his street, that he wrote to the mayor demanding that the city outlaw it. The mayor’s response was polite but dismissive. He said he would look into it.

When Mitchell wrote to Cope in 1881, she had a very specific request: she hoped he would return her sextant.

Maria Mitchell’s letter to E. D. Cope asking him to return her sextant if he finds it in a box of James Orton’s things.
Maria Mitchell’s letter to E. D. Cope asking him to return her sextant if he finds it in a box of James Orton’s things.

1881 Nov 7
Observatory of Vassar College
Po’keepsie

Prof. Kope
Dear Sir,
A gentleman named Heath, who called on me yesterday, tells me that the boxes of the late Professor Orton are likely to reach your hands.
I lent Prof. Orton a valuable sextant which I hope may be found in the collection sent to you. May I trouble you, if it is among them, to send it to me by Express.
Yours,
Maria Mitchell

Apparently, Mitchell had loaned her sextant to Professor Orton. She was probably referring to James Orton, who in 1867 had borrowed various instruments from the Smithsonian for his expedition up the Amazon and into the Andes and then in 1869 had introduced natural history instruction to Vassar College.[3] in the 1870 Orton made two other trips to the upper Amazon and the Andes.

Mitchell’s sextant probably resembled this one, perhaps even with a nice mahogany case. 19th-century sextant’s are readily available for reasonable prices. Bamford’s auctioned this one a couple years ago.
Mitchell’s sextant probably resembled this one, perhaps even with a nice mahogany case. 19th-century sextant’s are readily available for reasonable prices. Bamford’s auctioned this one a couple years ago.

Orton’s interests in zoology and his explorations of the Andes seems to have linked Cope’s paleontology to Mitchell’s astronomy. Orton, who had a history of borrowing astronomical instruments, probably borrowed Mitchell’s sextant for one of his later trips to the Andes. We can imagine Orton exploring the Amazon jungle and the Andes using Mitchell’s sextant to chart his way. Then, after he died, Cope had arranged to acquire some of Orton’s material related to his zoological work. Apparently, Mitchell suspected that in one of those boxes Cope would find her valuable sextant.

Unfortunately, we don’t know if Mitchell ever received her sextant or even if Cope replied—unfortunately, Haverford’s collection of Cope letters doesn’t include any of his responses. Maybe the observatory at Vassar College has Mitchell’s sextant now on display with other historically significant instruments.[4]


  1. This letter is in the collection of E. D. Cope letters, which includes letters from all sorts of interesting people, including a letter from Ernst Haekel. To find other letters in the collection, see the Edward Drinker Cope Papers finding aid. If you want to read more about Cope, see these posts.  ↩

  2. Known for years (and probably still in various circles) as “Miss Mitchell’s Comet,” it is formally identified as C/1847 T1.  ↩

  3. Orton was apparently a supporter of coeducation and wrote a text based on his experiences teaching natural history at Vassar: Liberal Education of Women. He also wrote Comparative Zoology, Structural and Systematic, based on Agassiz’s functional approach to zoology.  ↩

  4. Haverford College used to have some 19th-century instruments, including sextants. But the college recently sold them. In a strange denial of expertise, the astronomer at the time didn’t consult with the historian of science (me) before deciding we no longer needed the instruments and deciding to sell them (the proceeds were used to support public programs at the observatory, if I recall correctly). We have lost the chance to learn anything more about those instruments.  ↩