A new exhibition at Vassar College’s Thompson Memorial Library celebrates the work of America’s first female astronomer, Maria Mitchell, who was also Vassar’s first professor.
Seeing the Sun: Maria Mitchell’s Observations, 1868-1888 highlights research efforts by Mitchell and her students to record and study the sun. The exhibition features 19 never-before-seen prints made from glass photographic plates re-discovered at the college’s Observatory in 1997. The plates were cleaned and rehoused by the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) in 2015. Once the plates were stable, the NEDCC created the prints on view in the exhibit. Seeing the Sun also includes other photographs, historical documents, artifacts, and samples of Mitchell’s writings. The exhibition is free and open to the public and will be on view through June 12.
Mitchell was a pioneer of astrophotography and the first scientist to photograph the sun on a daily basis. She gained international recognition in 1847 after discovering a comet visible only through a telescope, for which she was awarded a gold medal from the King of Denmark. Later, Matthew Vassar recruited Mitchell and she was the first professor hired when Vassar opened in 1865.
Shortly thereafter she began recording sunspots by eye. Long before the days of Kodak and Polaroid, Mitchell ventured into the new world of astrophotography by pouring hand-prepared emulsions over glass plates to record astronomical events more precisely than the eye could see. By 1873, Mitchell trained her students in this process and oversaw them taking daily photographs of the sun.
Seeing the Sun is on view on the main floor of Vassar’s Thompson Memorial Library.
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