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Astronomical meeting at the Nantucket Maria Mitchell Observatory, ca. 1930.  Photograph courtesy of the Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association.

Nantucket’s Daring Daughters: A Brief Look at Margaret Harwood

From time to time, I hope to introduce you to some lesser known members of our community who walked our streets long ago(and maybe not so long ago).  My focus will be heavily on women – an area of research for many years for me (for obvious reasons!) and I am going to give it the sub-title under “Nation of Nantucket” as “Nantucket’s Daring Daughters.” 

Margaret Harwood (1885 – 1979) served as the first director of the Maria Mitchell Association’s Observatory and Astronomy Department.  The post made her the first woman in the United States to serve as a director of a small independent observatory.  Many islanders remember Miss Harwood and have fond memories of her.  There are quite a few who credit her with helping them to get to college – securing funds from those she knew in order to help pay their way for a higher education.  I did not know Miss Harwood but she is still here at MMA.  Her work, the things she did for the organization and even her donation of artifacts to the Mitchell House − which I curate − or items to the Library or Astronomy department.  Her influence lives on.

Born in 1885, Miss Harwood graduated from Radcliffe College in 1907 and earned her AM from the University of California in 1916.  She worked at the Harvard Observatory after her graduation from Radcliffe and also taught at several Boston-area schools.  In 1912, she was awarded an astronomical fellowship at the Maria Mitchell Observatory, a program that was begun with the help of Annie Jump Cannon, a well-known and respected astronomer at the Harvard College Observatory who catalogued over half a million stars and was the first woman awarded an honorary Ph. D. by Oxford University. 

Miss Harwood was appointed director of the MMO in 1916 – a post she held until 1956 when Dorrit Hoffleit took over the position.  Miss. Harwood – as she is still referred to (and I certainly refer to her that way too!) − focused on photometry: measuring variation in the light of stars and asteroids, especially that of the small planet Eros.  What you need to keep in mind is that she was accomplishing these things and making these studies when it was still believed that women could not – should not even – be working in the sciences.  She faced quite a bit of discrimination based on her sex, though given Nantucket’s legacy of strong women, she did not face that here.  But she was    determined – just like Maria Mitchell who faced the same obstacles in the nineteenth century.

Margaret Harwood was the first woman to gain access to the Mount Wilson    Observatory – then the world’s leading observatory.  The story is that the director took a leave of absence and he was the one who strictly enforced the “no women” rule.  However, a good friend of Miss Harwood’s was temporarily in charge of Mt. Wilson and he invited her to observe.  This reminds me of the machinations that Maria Mitchell had to go through in order to visit the observatory at the Vatican in the 1850s.  It took two weeks or more but she was finally able to secure entry – albeit only during the day!  She was able to make some observations and her entry to the Vatican made Maria Mitchell the first woman to gain entry to the Vatican’s observatory. 

Miss Harwood was well-known on the island and is credited with inspiring many island youth to go into the sciences.  Whether it be through lectures, programming, or public open nights, Miss Harwood touched many people.  As Edouard Stackpole, a former president of the Maria Mitchell Association’s board once said, she “. . . was a counterpart to Maria Mitchell.  Her singleness of purpose; her awareness of teaching methods best calculated to inspire; her understanding of the human spirit . . . .” and her can-do and never give up attitude as attested to above.

Margaret Harwood passed away in 1979, leaving a legacy as deep and as rich as Maria Mitchell.  Her legacy lives on at the MMA but also in all those she inspired and the people they now inspire.

The Nation of Nantucket
The “Nation of Nantucket” was coined by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1847.  It was used by Edward Byers as the title of his 1987 publication on Nantucket society and politics from 1660 – 1820.  Both men spoke of the isolation and uniqueness of Nantucket and that such a title was fitting for our tiny spit of land far out at sea.  I, too, feel that it is appropriate – on many levels.  I use it as the title of this column because here I intend to regale you with all sorts of stories about Nantucketers, island life, island institutions, and the history (good and bad) of a small island that had an enormous influence on the world.  My focus will be mainly on Nantucket women, of course, but I will add some other things of interest to me – and I hope you – as well.  Stay tuned and to read my blog for the Maria Mitchell Association go to “Maria Mitchell’s Attic” at:

Jascin N. Leonardo Finger has served as curator of the Mitchell House at the Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association since 1999.  She holds a Master’s in History.  Her passions are her family, all things Nantucket, good food, weaving, and photographing historic architecture.  The island has been a part of her life since she was introduced to it at age 1½ by her parents.  She lives year-round on the island with her husband, a naval architect, and their Siberian Husky who takes them on long walks from one glorious end of the island to the other.