The women who shaped science: Maria Mitchell – The first female astronomer in the US

Maria Mitchell was born in Nantucket on November 1st, 1818. She was one of nine children to William and Lydia Mitchell and was raised as a Quaker. At a young age she already exhibited an avid curiosity and a passion for learning. As a Quaker, her parents believed in equal rights in the education of both men and women. Her father was an astronomer and a teacher, and had a meaningful impact on Maria’s curiosity for the stars by giving her first telescope and having her assist him in his work. She became the first librarian at the Nantucket Atheneum, where she worked from 1936 to 1956. Maria cherished this job as it gave her an opportunity to indulge in her love for reading and books. At night, she would assist her father at the observatory atop the Pacific Bank, helping gather navigational information for the US Coast Guard. It was during one of their sessions, on October 1st 1847, that Maria discovered a comet. Although some comets had been identified at the time, it was still a rare event. Maria spent several nights tracking the trajectory of the comet while her father relayed the discovery to Professor William Bond at Harvard University. Not only did this mark the first discovery of a comet made by an American, but also was a testament to Maria’s skill and legitimacy as an astronomer. The comet was thereafter named “Miss Mitchell’s comet” and she received a medal by King Frederick VI of Denmark for her discovery.

Source: "Maria Mitchell" by H. Dassell (1851) - Sweeper in the Sky: The Life of Maria Mitchell, First Woman Astronomer in America by Helen Wright, 1914-1997.
Source: “Maria Mitchell” by H. Dassell (1851) – Sweeper in the Sky: The Life of Maria Mitchell, First Woman Astronomer in America by Helen Wright, 1914-1997.

Due to her discovery, Mitchell rose to fame as the first female astronomer in the US. She became the first woman elected to the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Additionally, she was elected into the American Philosophical Society. She was the first woman hired by the federal government for her knowledge in an academic field and through this spent the next decade working in Europe aiding in numerous astronomical studies. She continued her studies throughout the civil war and was a vocal supporter of the anti-slavery movement. In 1865 she became a professor of Astronomy at Vassar College where she became a respected educator. In 1873 she co-founded the Association for the Advancement of Women and became an advocate for equal education for men and women. She passed away on June 28, 1889 of a brain disease. After her death, the Maria Mitchell Observatory was founded in Nantucket, as well as the Maria Mitchell Association (MMA). Furthermore, she was inducted into the Hall of Fame of Great Americans and the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She had the World War II ship the SS Mitchell and the moon crater “Mitchell’s Crater” named after her. Mitchell was a pioneer not only for women in science, but for the study of astronomy in the United States. Although she is relatively unknown today, her work paved the way for future generations of astronomers. She lived her life as a defender of education, women’s rights, civil rights and an observer of nature and life. Her legacy lays not only her numerous contributions to the field of astronomy, but in her belief that science is open to all who want to pursue it.

“We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry” – Maria Mitchell


Editor: Chris Hensley

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