Tag: Vassar College

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.  ↩

Between STS and the Sciences

At last weekend’s STS workshop I facilitated a discussion that explored the relations between STS and the sciences. Here are some summary thoughts from that discussion.

We began thinking about the relationship between faculty in the different disciplines—STS/History of science and the various sciences—but quickly shifted focus to students. For many of us, the relationship between STS and the sciences seems to be mediated through students who take classes in both areas. Consequently, we talked about some teaching practices—such as team teaching or peer teaching—and important curricular differences—such as requiring more science coursework.

In general we agreed that one of the goals of STS in the undergraduate program was to get students in the sciences to question what they are doing and why, to disrupt easy notions of fact and reality, and to make the familiar and comfortable both strange and uncomfortable. May of us also thought that STS students should not be separated from the sciences. An STS curriculum without a grounding in science risks losing something important.

Some of the key themes:

  • how are we seen by departmental colleagues differs from how we are seen by science colleagues;
  • students majoring in one of the sciences often take our classes for validation;
  • science faculty rely on us as “story tellers” and the STS as source of stories;
  • courses like “Physics for poets” indicate a broad interest in STS by faculty in the sciences;
  • courses like “Physics for poets” and looking at STS faculty as story tellers was considered problematic by some;
  • we need convince our colleagues to recognize and take seriously our expertise in STS.

The participants represented various departments: anthropology, biology, history, philosophy, and STS. While many of us have appointments in particular departments and teach in STS programs, a few have positions in STS programs. As such, the particularities at our different institutions shaped our discussion. Faculty from institutions with strong STS programs seemed more comfortable with the relationship between STS and the sciences. Faculty at colleges with no STS program or with a particularly strong tradition in the sciences seemed to want to defend STS as on par with the sciences.

STS in the Liberal Arts and Beyond

As I mentioned a few weeks back, I taking part in a workshop at Vassar College, “Science and Technology Studies (STS) in the Liberal Arts,” on the role, if any, of STS in an undergraduate liberal arts curriculum.1

The program is shaping up nicely. Topics include:

  • Branching Out: STS and Other Multidisciplinary Fields
  • Partnerships and Tensions: Exploring Relations between STS and the Sciences
  • Pedagogical Enhancements: New Teaching Methods for STS
  • So, What’s New?: Incorporating the Cutting-edge into Our Teaching and Scholarship
  • Beyond the Blackboard: Educational Technologies in the STS Classroom
  • Outside the Classroom: Non-Curricular Involvement of STS in College Life
  • Off-Campus Opportunities: Connecting to Businesses, Agencies, NGOs
  • Faced with Intellectual Diversity: Tailoring STS Content to Students’ Interests
  • Diverse Students: Globalism and Multiculturalism in the STS Classroom

I am particularly interested in “Partnerships and Tensions” and “Off-Campus Opportunities.”

I am hopeful that we will also be able to talk about what we think holds the STS curriculum together or gives it some coherence. In a comment on my previous post, Joe Martin suggested:

… what are the core competencies of an STS graduate? How do they differ from those of other liberal arts/interdisciplinary majors? How can STS strive to confer the type of disciplinary competence that traditional liberal arts majors offer? Given the diverse and fuzzy-bordered nature of STS as a field, I suspect that answers to questions like these will be highly local and it might be worthwhile to expose and map those differences.

I think these are important questions, complicated by the fact that at many liberal arts institutions STS is not a degree or minor program. STS course work is interleaved into the students’ regular major. Here at Haverford, history majors can select “History of Science” as one of their areas of concentration. Despite some promising efforts a few years back, an STS minor never gained any real traction. Other minors and concentrations often want a history of science or STS component—e.g., Health and Society or Environmental Studies—but again, STS is subordinated to the real focus of the program.

Perhaps that makes Joe’s questions all the more important. What is it that STS brings to the table that other disciplines and majors don’t? What sort of identity—disciplinary or curricular or ideological or pedagogical—does STS have?

If you have suggestions or thoughts, please email them to me or, better yet, write a post at your blog and link back so I am alerted to your post.

1 I am not distinguishing between STS and History of Science. There are many heated debates about the nature of these two things and their proper goals and objects of study and their political agendas. I am not engaging with those debates here.