Maria Mitchell, painting by H. Dasell, 1851
August 1, 1818|
|Died||June 28, 1889
|Known for||Discovery of C/1847 T1
First female U.S. professional astronomer
Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818 – June 28, 1889) (pron: ma-RY-ah) was an American astronomer, who in 1847, by using a telescope, discovered a comet which as a result became known as the "Miss Mitchell's Comet". She won a gold medal prize for her discovery which was presented to her by King Frederick VII of Denmark. The medal said “Not in vain do we watch the setting and rising of the stars”. Mitchell was the first American woman to work as a professional astronomer.
Early years 
Maria Mitchell was born on August 1, 1818, in Nantucket, Massachusetts, and was a first cousin was a very distance relationship with Benjamin Franklin. She had nine brothers and sisters. Her parents, William Mitchell and Lydia Coleman Mitchell, were Quakers. Maria Mitchell was born into a community unusual for its time in regard to equality for women. Her parents, like other Quakers, valued education and insisted on giving her the same quality of education that boys received. The Quaker religion taught, among other things, intellectual equality between the sexes. Additionally, Nantucket's importance as a whaling port meant that wives of sailors were left for months and sometimes years to manage affairs while their husbands were at sea, thus fostering an atmosphere of relative independence and equality for the women who called the island home. In spite of this, the women of Nantucket still lacked the right to own property or to vote, among other things.
After attending Elizabeth Gardener's small school in her earliest childhood years, Maria attended the North Grammar school, where William Mitchell was the first principal. Two years following the founding of that school, when Maria was eleven, her father built his own school on Howard Street. There, she was a student and also a teaching assistant to her father. At home, Maria's father taught her astronomy using his personal telescope. At age twelve and a half, she aided her father in calculating the exact moment of annular eclipse.
Her father's school closed, and afterwards she attended Unitarian minister Cyrus Peirce's school for young ladies. Later she worked for Peirce as his teaching assistant before she opened her own school in 1835. One year later, she was offered a job as the first librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum where she worked for eighteen years.
Comet discovery 
Using a telescope, she discovered the "Miss Mitchell's Comet"(Comet 1847 VI, modern designation is C/1847 T1) on October 1 of 1847. Some years previously, King Frederick VI of Denmark had established gold medal prizes to each discoverer of a "telescopic comet" (too faint to be seen with the naked eye). The prize was to be awarded to the "first discoverer" of each such comet (note that comets are often independently discovered by more than one person). She duly won one of these prizes, and this gave her worldwide fame, since the only previous woman to discover a comet had been Caroline Herschel.
There was a temporary question of priority because Francesco de Vico had independently discovered the same comet two days later, but had reported it first; however, this was resolved in Mitchell's favor. The prize was awarded in 1848 by the new king Frederick VII.
She became the first woman member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848 and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1850. She later worked at the U.S. Nautical Almanac Office, calculating tables of positions of Venus, and traveled in Europe with Nathaniel Hawthorne and his family.
She became professor of astronomy at Vassar College in 1865, the first person (male or female) appointed to the faculty. She was also named as Director of the Vassar College Observatory. After teaching there for some time, she learned that despite her reputation and experience, her salary was less than that of many younger male professors. She insisted on a salary increase, and got it.
In 1842, she left the Quaker faith and followed Unitarian principles. In protest against slavery, she stopped wearing clothes made of cotton. She was friends with various suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and co-founded the American Association for the Advancement of Women. She was the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and as one of the first women elected to the American Philosophical Society (1869, at this identical meeting Mary Fairfax Somerville and Elizabeth Cabot Carey Agassiz were also elected).
She died on June 28, 1889, at the age of 70, Lynn, Massachusetts. She was buried in Lot 411, Prospect Hill Cemetery, Nantucket. The Maria Mitchell Observatory in Nantucket is named in her honor. The Observatory is part of the Maria Mitchell Association in Nantucket, which aims to preserve the sciences on the island. It operates a Natural History Museum, Maria Mitchell's Home Museum, and the Science Library as well as the Observatory. She was also posthumously inducted into the U.S. National Women's Hall of Fame. She was the namesake of a World War II Liberty ship, the SS Maria Mitchell. The crater Mitchell on the Moon is named after her. In 1902, the Maria Mitchell Association was founded in her memory. She is also known for her famous quote, "We have a hunger of the mind. We ask for all of the knowledge around us and the more we get, the more we desire."
See also 
- "Maria Mitchell (1818-1889)". National Women’s History Museum. Retrieved November 1, 2012.
- "Maria Mitchell Discovers a Comet". This Month in Physics History. American Physical Society. Retrieved November 1, 2012.
- Among The Stars: The Life of Maria Mitchell. Mill Hill Press, Nantucket, MA. 2007
- Maria Mitchell
- Gormley, Beatrice. Maria Mitchell: The Soul of an Astronomer. Eerdmans Publishing Co, MI. 1995.
- "Maria Mitchell". Vassar Encyclopedia. Vassar College. Retrieved November 1, 2012.
- "Maria Mitchell Salary Dispute". Vassar Encyclopedia. Vassar College. Retrieved November 1, 2012.
- Member of the American Philosophical Society 30.05.2011
- Prospect Hill Cemetery, Nantucket, Massachusetts
- "Maria Mitchell - Retirement and a Return to Lynn". Maria Mitchell Association. Retrieved 29 March 2012.
- "Maria Mitchell Association - About Us". Maria Mitchell Association. Retrieved 29 March 2012.
- "Maria Mitchell - Legacy and the Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association". Maria Mitchell Association. Retrieved 29 March 2012.
Online sources 
- "Notice of a reward by the King of Denmark for the discovery of Comet", MNRAS 2 (1832) 59
- "Elements of Miss Mitchell's Comet", MNRAS 8 (1848) 130
- "Discontinuance of the King of Denmark's comet medal", AJ 1 (1850) 56 (due to First war of Schleswig)
- Works by Maria Mitchell at Project Gutenberg
Book sources 
- Kendall, Phebe Mitchell. Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters, and Journals. Boston: Lee & Shepard, 1896. (out of print; compiled by her sister)
- M. W. Whitney, In Memoriam, (Poughkeepsie, N. Y., 1889)
- M. K. Babbitt, Maria Mitchell as her students Knew her, (Poughkeepsie, N. Y., 1912)
- Albers, Henry editor "Maria Mitchell, A Life in Journals and Letters" College Avenue Press, Clinton Corners, NY, 2001. (Henry Albers was the Fifth Maria Mitchell Professor of Astronomy at Vassar College.)
- Torjesen, Elizabeth Fraser, Comet Over Nantucket: Maria Mitchell and Her Island: The Story of America's First Woman Astronomer, (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1984)
- Renée Bergland, Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science: An Astronomer Among the American Romantics, Beacon Press, Boston, 2008.
- Wright, Helen, Sweeper in the Skies: The Life of Maria Mitchell, (College Avenue Press, Clinton Corners,NY,1997.ISBN 1-883551-70-6. (Commemorative Edition of 1949 edition. Wright was born in Washington,DC and served as assistant in Astronomy Dept. at Vassar and later US Naval Observatory and Mt. Wilson Observatory.Wrote bios of Geo. Hale and Palomar Observatory & w. Harold Shapley co-ed of Treasury of Science)
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- Encyclopædia Britannica biographical information
- Maria Mitchell Association
- Unitarian Universalist Biography of Maria Mitchell
- Prospect Hill Cemetery
- Bibliography from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific
- Maria Mitchell at Find a Grave