Maria Mitchell

An image of Maria Mitchell, American astronomer.
Maria Mitchell at her desk. Wikimedia Commons, Julia Ward Howe.

Maria Mitchell was an American astronomer and the first recognized female astronomer in the U.S.. She was born August 1, 1818, in Nantucket, Massachusetts, and was primarily self-educated, although she did attend some public school and was taught by her father. 

At the age of sixteen she was already a teaching assistant to Cyrus Peirce, founder of the first normal school in America. The following year, she opened her own school, renting a room and advertising in the newspaper.

A year later, Maria began work as a librarian of Nantucket's Atheneum Library. Besides providing a great salary, the job also gave her time to read and study.

Around this same time, her father also accepted a position as cashier of the Pacific Bank. The new job included living quarters attached to the bank. Mr. Mitchell installed an observatory on the roof with a brand-new four-inch telescope. He performed star observations for the United States Coast Guard. Maria helped with the measurements.

Maria's First Discovery

Maria practically memorized the sky and on October 1, 1847, she was making observations when she saw a star five degrees above the North Star (Polaris) where there had been no star before. She thought it might be a comet, and recorded its coordinates. The following evening, it had moved and she was sure it was a comet.

Mr. Mitchell contacted Professor William Bond at the Harvard University observatory, telling him about Maria's discovery.

The professor sent Maria's name to the king of Denmark, who had offered a gold medal to a person who discovered a comet seen only through a telescope. In the meantime, Father Francesco de Vico of Rome spotted the same comet two days later than Maria. Being closer, his information arrived first and the decision was made to award him the prize.

Once the king learned of Maria, she was awarded the medal for this discovery a year later. The comet was named "Miss Mitchell's Comet." Today it is known as C/1847/T1. 

The Carl Sagan of Her Time

Maria became an international celebrity, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences voted her the first woman member in 1848. The Association for the Advancement of Science followed suit in 1850. In 1849, the U.S. Nautical Almanac Office offered her a job computing of tables of positions of the planet Venus. In time, she became professor of astronomy at Vassar College,where she taught and did research until her retirement in 1888. She died in 1889. 

The Maria Mitchell Observatory on Nantucket is named in her honor and is continually used by students. 

Edited by Carolyn Collins Petersen

An 1856 job as the companion to a wealthy young woman took Maria to New Orleans, then to London, where she visited the Greenwich Observatory. When her charge, Prudence Swift returned to the United States, Maria remained in Europe. She traveled to France on her own, then continued on to Rome with Nathaniel Hawthorne's family, hoping to visit the Vatican Observatory. Arriving in Rome, she was told that women were not admitted. After trying to get special permission she finally succeeded, but was allowed to go in only in the daytime and was not able to look at the stars through the telescope at night.

When she finally returned home, she was given a brand new telescope bought with money collected by women around the country for the first woman astronomer of the United States. She used it to study sunspots and other astronomical events.

In 1865 Maria accepted a position as professor of astronomy and director of the college observatory at the newly-opened Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. She was delighted to learn that she would have the use of a twelve-inch telescope, the third largest in the United States. Continuing her own research, she studied the surface features of Jupiter and Saturn and photographed stars.

In 1869 she was the first woman elected to the American Philosophical Society. Four years later, she helped found the American Association for the Advancement of Women and served as its president from 1874 to 1876.

The first meeting of the Women's Congress was held in 1873, with such notables as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, and Maria Mitchell in attendance. In 1875, Maria led the Women’s Congress. Throughout her life Maria encouraged young women just as her father had encouraged her, to be anything they wanted to be.

Poor health forced Maria to retire from Vassar in 1888. She died June 28, 1889 in Lynn, Massachusetts.

The Maria Mitchell Association was founded on Nantucket in 1902. In 1905 Maria was elected to the Hall of Fame of Great Americans at New York University (now at Bronx Community College). In 1994, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York. Her birthplace on Nantucket is open to the public during the summer. Maria also has a lunar crater named for her.