Maria Mitchell

An American lady astronomer, Maria Mitchell is most prominently known for discovering a comet which was then called “Miss Mitchell’s Comet.” In the history of astronomy, Maria Mitchell was the first ever American woman who worked as a professional astronomer. For her discovery of the comet which was named after her, she received a gold medal as a recognition from the king of Denmark, King Frederick VII. On the medal, the phrase “Not in vain do we watch the setting and rising of the stars” was inscribed, referring to how Maria Mitchell made her discovery with the use of her telescope.


Early Years and Life of Maria Mitchell


Maria Mitchell hailed from Nantucket, Massachusetts and was born on the first of August 1818 and died at the age of 70 on June 28, 1889. She is a distant relative of Benjamin Franklin. Because both her parents who were William Mitchell as well as Lydia Coleman Mitchell were under the Quaker faith, she had received education and equal rights as what was given to men during that time. This was considered as an unusual setup during those days, but because of one of the tenets in the religion of the Quakers, she received equal intellectual treatment which was one of the reasons for her fostered love of science.


Her earliest years in school were spent at Elizabeth Gardener’s small school. Then she attended North Grammar school and this was where her father was the school principal. Her awareness for astronomy came to life when her father began to teach her about the stars with the use of his own telescope. At a tender age of twelve, she had already been assisting her father calculate when the exact time of the annular eclipse would be.


When the school founded by her father closed, she then attended Cyrus Peirce’s school for young ladies. Before opening her very own school in 1853, she worked as a teaching assistant for Cyrus Peirce himself. A year after her own school was opened, she was then offered the job of being Nantucket Atheneum’s first librarian, and she worked there for 18 years.


Career in Astronomy and the Discover of the Comet


It was on the first of October, 1847 when she discovered the comet named after her. During those years, then king of Denmark, King Frederick VII gave gold medals for anyone who had telescopic comet discoveries. The medal was awarded to the first discoverer of the comet only, and not to anyone else who subsequently discovers the same celestial phenomenon. In astronomy’s history, Maria Mitchell is the second woman to discover a comet next only to Caroline Herschel. After her discovery of “Miss Mitchell’s Comet,” she gained popularity worldwide and was recognized for her contribution to astronomy. Today, the designation of this comet is C/1847 T1.


It was in 1848 that she became the first lady member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Two years later, she also became one of the members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. After being part of those important associations and institutions for astronomy, she worked for the U.S. Nautical Almanac Office where she calculated tables for the positions of the planet Venus and even went on a travel to Europe together with the family of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was an American short story writer and novelist.


In the year 1842, she left the family’s Quaker faith and began to follow Unitarian principles. She protested against slavery and to show her efforts, she stopped wearing clothing made of cotton. She had been friends with other fellow suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and along with other notable women of their time, founded the American Association for the Advancement of Women.


Apart from using the observatory dome of Vassar College for astronomy and scientific purposes, she also used it as a meeting place for discussing politics along with women’s rights and issues. From 1874-1876 she helped found what was known as the American Association for the Advancement of Women and served as their president for those years. A year prior to her founding of that association for women, she had been elected as a part of the American Philosophical Society. It was in 1873 when she attended the first meeting held by the Women’s Congress.


Maria Mitchell then became the very first professor hired for the Vassar College in 1865, and was also named as the Vassar College Observatory’s director. An interesting part of her career was that despite the experience she had along with her reputation and expertise, her salary was still less compared to other younger male professors. Because of this, she asked for a raise and as she deserved, she got it.


Two of Maria Mitchell’s favorite planets were Jupiter and Saturn and during her years in Vassar College, she went on with her research about the surface of these planets and also photographed the stars. The apparatus she used to photograph both the sun and the stars was her own, and she preserved plates of these photographs in one of the observatory’s closets. Her works, along with those of her students were published in the Silliman’s Journal which was one of the top scientific journals those times established by Benjamin Silliman in 1818 at Yale, and also had their works published at Poughkeepsie or Nantucket papers.


Maria Mitchell’s Latter Years and Legacy


Being born at a time when women’s rights weren’t equal with those of men, it can be said that Maria Mitchell’s contributions to science as well as the welfare of women are to be considered as valuable contributions to both science and history.


It was June 28, 1889 when she died at 70 years old in Lynn, Massachusetts. In Nantucket, the Maria Mitchell Observatory is named after the honor of one of the most noted female astronomers who truly made a mark in history. After her death, she was made a part of the U.S. National Women’s Hall of Fame. Even on the moon, a crater was named “Mitchell” after her to commemorate her importance in the field of astronomy.