Distinguished Women of Past and Present

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Maria Mitchell

(1818-1889)

Maria Mitchell, an American astronomer, was born August 1, 1818 in Nantucket, Massachusetts, USA. Her father, a member of the Quaker religion felt strongly that girls should receive education equal to that of boys. When Maria was sixteen she was already a teaching assistant to a schoolmaster. He was Cyrus Peirce, the founder of the first normal school in America, nowadays called a teacher's college. Whe she was seventeen she decided to open a school of her own. She rented a room and put an advertisement in the newspaper. The school closed after a year when Maria was offered a job as a librarian of Nantucket's Atheneum Library. This job was perfect for her, because she was earning a good salary and had time to study and read books. Her father also was hired as cashier of the Pacific Bank. With his new job came the living quarters attached to the bank. Mr. Mitchell built an observatory on the roof and installed a brand-new four-inch telescope. He used it to do star observations for the United States Coast Guard and Maria helped her father with the measurements.

One night in the Autumn of 1847, Maria looked at the sky through the telescope and saw a star five degrees above the North Star where there had been no star before. She had memorized the sky and was sure of her observation. It occurred to her that this might be a comet. Maria recorded the presumed comet's coordinates. The next night the star moved again. This time she was sure it was a comet. Her father wrote to Professor William Bond at the Harvard University observatory about Maria's discovery. Professor Bond submitted Maria's name to the king of Denmark who had offered a gold medal to a person who discovers a comet seen only through a telescope. Another person, Father Francesco de Vico of Rome discovered the same comet two days later than Maria Mitchell and the decision was made to award him the prize before news of Maria's earlier discovery arrived in Europe. After some negotiations Maria Mitchell was awarded the medal for this discovery a year later. The comet was named "Miss Mitchell's Comet."

She continued working as a librarian, but now she was also receiving letters of congratulations from scientists and tourists were coming to take a look at the woman astronomer. In 1848 the American Academy of Arts and Sciences voted her the 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 (one who does computations) of tables of positions of the planet Venus. She also started traveling to attend scientific meetings.

In 1856 she received an offer from a rich man named General Swift to accompany his daughter Prudence on a trip to the South and to Europe. Maria accepted and took her almanac work with her. They went south to New Orleans, then to London, where Maria visited the Greenwich Observatory. Prudence returned to the States, but Maria remained in Europe. She went to France on her own, then continued on to Rome with Nathaniel Hawthorne's family. She had hoped to visit the Vatican Observatory, but she was told that women were not admitted. She tried to get special permission and finally succeeded, but was allowed to go in only in the daytime. She was not able to look at the stars through the telescope at night. After her return home, she was presented with a new telescope bought with money collected by women for the first woman astronomer of the United States. She used it to study sunspots and other astronomical events.

In 1865 she became professor of astronomy and director of the college observatory at the newly-opened Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York where she had the use of a twelve-inch telescope, the third largest in the United States. She often invited her students to come up to the observatory at night and watch meteor showers or other astronomical events. Maria Mitchell continued her own research in studying the surface features of Jupiter and Saturn and photographing stars. In 1869 she was the first woman elected to the American Philosophical Society. In 1873, she helped found the American Association for the Advancement of Women and served as its president from 1874 to 1876. In 1873 she attended the first meeting of the Women's Congress. The Congress was also attended by many women's rights activists, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, etc.

Maria Mitchell retired from Vassar in 1888 because of poor health. She died June 28, 1889 in Lynn, Massachusetts. Soon after Maria's death her friends and supporters founded the Maria Mitchell Association on Nantucket in 1902. In 1905 she was elected to the Hall of Fame of Great Americans at New York University (now at Bronx Community College). In 1994, she was elected to the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York. The house on Nantucket where Maria was born is open to the public during the summer. For further information on Maria Mitchell, contact the Maria Mitchell Association at http://www.mmo.org/

Contributed by Danuta Bois, 1996.
Corrections submitted by Mara Alper, Curator, Maria Mitchell Birthplace

Bibliography:
1. Rooftop Astronomer by Stephanie Sammartino McPherson, Carolrhoda Books, Inc., 1990
2. American Women's History by Doris Weatherford, Prentice Hall General Reference, 1994
3. The Book of Women's Firsts: Breakthrough Achievements of Almost 1,000 American Women by Phyllis J. Read and Bernard L. Witlieb, Random House, 1992
4. Women of Science: Righting the Record, edited by G. Kass-Simon and Patricia Farnes, Indiana University Press, 1993
5. Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals, edited by Phebe Mitchell Kendall, Lee and Shepard, 1896

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