Maria Mitchell (1818-1889) is an astronomer, educator, librarian, activist, and the first nationally recognized woman scientist in the United States. She discovers a new comet, which bears her name, and calculates its orbit, and adds several new nebulae to sky maps. She also teaches at a prominent women’s college and fights to advance the cause of women’s rights.
Mitchell is born on August 1, 1818, the third of ten children in a Quaker family on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. Her father, William Mitchell, is an accomplished amateur astronomer and a colleague of William Cranch Bond, the first director of the Harvard College Observatory. She pursues studies in astronomy and mathematics and works as her father’s helper.
At the age of 17, Mitchell founds a private school for girls that is open to children of every race and religion, unlike the public schools of the time. The school dissolves a year later, however, when Mitchell is appointed librarian at the Nantucket Atheneum in 1836. During her time, the Atheneum becomes known as a meeting place and lecture site for forward thinkers, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Frederick Douglass. She holds this post for the next 20 years but continues to also engage in science projects, including the first detailed survey of Nantucket.
In October 1847, Mitchell’s regular telescope observations result in the discovery of a new comet which brings Mitchell worldwide recognition from other astronomers and the scientific community. For this achievement, she receives a gold medal created by the King of Denmark for any person who first discovers a comet that could not be seen with the naked eye. Mitchell is the first American, as well as the first woman, to receive the medal.
In 1848 she becomes the first woman to be elected an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (she is the only woman member for nearly 100 years later) and is appointed a computer for the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac in which she annually observes and calculates the position of the planet Venus for sailors to use for navigation. From 1857-1858, she travels abroad to visit observatories and meet European scientists, receiving awards along the way.
In 1865, Mitchell is one of the first professors hired at newly founded Vassar College in New York state, which is the first women’s college to offer astronomy in its curriculum. She teaches there until 1888 and several of her students go on to become prominent astronomers. Mitchell is the only member of the original nine-member faculty who is well known worldwide and she is credited with the success of the institution in part both because of her name, which inspired confidence in the college, and because of her remarkable teaching ability.
When she discovers that the men who teach at Vassar are paid higher salaries than women, Mitchell becomes a strong advocate of women’s rights. In 1870, she is elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Women.
Mitchell receives a further honor when she is elected a member of the American Philosophical Society. She is also the recipient of honorary degrees from Columbia University, Hanover College, and Rutgers Female College.
She dies on June 28, 1889, in Lynn, Massachusetts where she had retired to work in her small private observatory. In 1902, the Maria Mitchell Association in Nantucket purchase and preserve Mitchell’s birthplace as a memorial museum for scientific purposes. Many of the women on the Association’s Organization Committee have close ties to Vassar College, including Mary W. Whitney, Mitchell’s first student at Vassar and later, professor of astronomy there. Several years later, the Association successfully fundraises and builds the Maria Mitchell Astronomical Observatory on Nantucket Island in 1908.
Maria Mitchell became a symbol of what women can accomplish in the scholarly world when given the opportunity and encouragement.
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