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Maria Mitchell

the first professional female astronomer in the United States

Maria Mitchell

Maria Mitchell was born in Nantucket, Massachusetts, on August 1, 1818. Her father, a member of the Quaker religion, believed that girls should receive the same education as boys, and by the time she was 16 Maria was a teaching assistant at the first normal school in America. At the age of 17 she decided to open a school of her own, but she closed it after one year in order to take a job as a librarian of Nantucket's Atheneum Library. At about the same time, her father became cashier at the Pacific Bank, a job that came with a house. Mr. Mitchell built an observatory on the roof and installed a four-inch telescope, which he used to do star observations for the U.S. Coast Survey; Maria often helped her father with his measurements.

In the autumn of 1847, while looking through her father's telescope, Maria saw a star where she had recorded none before. Presuming the "star" to be a comet, she recorded its coordinates. The next night she saw that the "star" had moved, confirming her presumption. Her father wrote to Professor William Bond at the Harvard University Observatory about Maria's discovery. Bond, in turn, submitted news of the discovery to the king of Denmark, who had offered a gold medal to a person who discovered a comet seen only through a telescope. By the time news of Mitchell's discovery reached Europe, however, the medal had already been awarded to Father Francesco de Vico of Rome, who had discovered the same comet two days after Mitchell. After a year of negotiations the medal was awarded to Mitchell; the comet was subsequently named "Miss Mitchell's Comet."

In 1848, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences voted Mitchell its first woman member; the Association for the Advancement of Science did the same in 1850. In 1849, she was offered a job by the U.S. Nautical Almanac Office as a computer of tables of positions of the planet Venus.

In 1856, Mitchell embarked on a trip throughout Europe during which she visited the Greenwich Observatory in London. She also got to visit the Vatican Observatory, but only after much negotiation and then was only allowed access during the daytime. After she returned home, she was presented with a new telescope bought for her with money collected by women for the first professional woman astronomer of the United States. She used it to study sunspots and other astronomical events.

In 1865, Mitchell became professor of astronomy and director of the college observatory at the newly-opened Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, where she had use of a twelve-inch telescope, then the third largest in the United States. Using this telescope she studied the surface features of Jupiter and Saturn, and photographed stars.

In 1869, Mitchell became the first American woman elected to the American Philosophical Society. In 1873, she helped found the American Association for the Advancement of Women, serving as its president from 1874 to 1876.

Mitchell retired from Vassar in 1888 due to poor health. She died in Lynn, Massachusetts, on June 28, 1889.

Friends and supporters founded the Maria Mitchell Association in Nantucket in 1902. In 1905, she was elected to the Hall of Fame of Great Americans at New York University (now Bronx Community College). In 1994, she was elected to the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York.

Maria Mitchell Association

American Philosophical Society

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This page was last updated on 06/27/2018.