Maria Mitchell, painting by H. Dasell, 1852
|Died||June 28, 1889 (aged 70)|
|Known for||Discovery of C/1847 T1|
First female U.S. professional astronomer
|Awards||King of Denmark's Cometary Prize Medal, 1848|
|Institutions||Nautical Almanac Office, Vassar College, Vassar College Observatory|
|Notable students||Margaretta Palmer|
Maria Mitchell (//; August 1, 1818 – June 28, 1889) was an American astronomer, who in 1847 by using a telescope, discovered a comet, which as a result became known as "Miss Mitchell's Comet". She won a gold medal prize for her discovery, which was presented to her by King Christian VIII of Denmark. On the medal was inscribed "Non Frustra Signorum Obitus Speculamur et Ortus" in Latin (taken from Georgics by Virgil (Book I, line 257) (English: "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. For her achievements she was elected as the first female Fellow of several learned societies, and in 1865 was the first professor to hired by the new Vassar College.
Maria Mitchell was born in Nantucket, Massachusetts to Lydia Coleman Mitchell and William Mitchell, who were Quakers. One of the tenets of the Quaker religion was intellectual equality between the sexes and Mitchell thrived in the broader Nantucket community in which such equality was highly regarded. She was the great-great-great-great granddaughter of Peter Foulger and Mary Morrill Foulger, and through them was a first cousin four times removed of Benjamin Franklin.
Mitchell's parents, like other Quakers, valued education and insisted on giving her the same access to education as boys received. She was fortunate that her father was a dedicated public school teacher who pursued an interest in mathematics and astronomy; he saw to it that Mitchell, who especially showed interest and talent, and all his children were indoctrinated with knowledge of astronomy. Additionally, Nantucket's importance as a whaling port meant that wives of sailors were left for months, sometimes years, to manage affairs at home while their husbands were at sea, thus fostering an atmosphere of relative independence and equality for the women who called the island home.
After attending Elizabeth Gardner small school in her earliest childhood years, Mitchell attended the North Grammar school, where William Mitchell was the first principal. Two years following the founding of that school, when she was 11 years old, her father founded his own school on Howard Street. There, she was a student and also a teaching assistant to her father. At home, her father taught her astronomy using his personal telescope. At age 12 1/2 she aided her father in calculating the exact moment of a solar eclipse.
Her father's school closed, and afterwards she attended Unitarian minister Cyrus Peirce's school for young ladies until she was 16. Later, she worked for Peirce as his teaching assistant before she opened her own school in 1835. Michell developed experimental teaching methods, which she practiced in her future teaching positions. She made the decision to allow nonwhite children to attend her school, a controversial move as the local public school was still segregated at the time. One year later, she was offered a job as the first librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum, where she worked for 20 years.
At 10:50 pm on the night of October 1, 1847, using a Dollond refracting telescope with three inches of aperture and forty six inch focal length, Mitchell discovered Comet 1847 VI—modern designation C/1847 T1 and later known as "Miss Mitchell's Comet". Under her father's name Mitchell published a notice of her discovery in Silliman's Journal in January 1848. The following month, she submitted her calculation of the comet's orbit, ensuring her claim as the original discoverer. That year, she was celebrated at the Seneca Falls Convention for the discovery and calculation.
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). Mitchell won one of these prizes, and this gave her worldwide fame, since the only previous women to discover a comet were the astronomers Caroline Herschel and Maria Margarethe Kirch. Her discovery and recognition by the Danish government legitimized American astronomy in Europe, whose astronomers previously looked down on American astronomers.
Temporarily, a question of priority arose because Francesco de Vico had independently discovered the same comet two days later, but had reported it to European authorities first. The question was resolved in Mitchell's favor and she was awarded the prize in 1848 by king Christian VIII.
Mitchell began recording sun spots by eye in 1868, but from 1873, her students and she at Vassar College were able to make daily photographic records, allowing more accurate records. These were the first regular photographs of the sun, and they allowed her to explore the hypothesis that sun spots were cavities rather than clouds on the surface of the sun. For the total solar eclipse of July 1878, Mitchell and five assistants travelled with a 4-inch telescope to Denver for observations.
She became the first woman elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848 and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1850. In 1881, reporting to the Association for the Advancement of Women, Mitchell expressed surprise that no women had been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences after her. Mitchell was also one of the first women elected to the American Philosophical Society (1869, at the same meeting Mary Somerville and Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz were elected). 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. While abroad, Mitchell toured the observatories of contemporary European astronomers Sir John and Caroline Herschel and Mary Somerville. She also spoke with a number of natural philosophers, including Alexander von Humboldt, William Whewell, and Adam Sedgewick.
She became professor of astronomy at Vassar College in 1865, the first person appointed to the faculty. She was also named as director of the Vassar College Observatory. Thanks in part to Mitchell's guidance, Vassar College enrolled more students in mathematics and astronomy than Harvard University from 1865 to 1888. Though her students’ career options were limited, she never doubted the importance of their study of astronomy. “I cannot expect to make astronomers,” she said to her students, “but I do expect that you will invigorate your minds by the effort at healthy modes of thinking. When we are chafed and fretted by small cares, a look at the stars will show us the littleness of our own interests.”
After teaching at Vassar for some time, she learned that despite her reputation and experience, her salary was less than that of many younger male professors. Mitchell and Alida Avery, the only other woman on the faculty at that time, insisted on a salary increase, and got it. She taught at the college until her retirement in 1888, one year before her death.
In 1843, she left the Quaker faith and followed Unitarian principles. In protest against slavery, she stopped wearing clothes made of southern cotton. She was friends with various suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and co-founded the Association for the Advancement of Women in 1873.
Mitchell became a celebrity following her discovery and awards, with hundreds of newspaper articles written about her in the subsequent decade. At her home in Nantucket, she entertained prominent academics of the time such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth.
Mitchell never married, but remained close to her immediate family throughout her life. After she retired from Vassar College in 1888, she lived in Lynn, Massachusetts, with her sister Kate and her family. Few of her personal documents remain from before 1846. The Mitchell family believes she witnessed personal papers of fellow Nantucketers blown through the street by the Great Fire of 1846, and because fear of another fire persisted, she burned her own documents to keep them private.
Mitchell died of brain disease on June 28, 1889, at the age of 70, in Lynn, Massachusetts. She was buried in Lot 411, in 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, aquarium, Maria Mitchell's Home Museum, and the Science Library, as well as the observatory. She was also inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame, and was made a National Women's History Month Honoree for 1989 by the National Women's History Project. She was the namesake of a World War II Liberty ship, the SS Maria Mitchell. New York's Metro North commuter railroad (with its Hudson Line endpoint in Poughkeepsie near Vassar College) has a train named the Maria Mitchell Comet in her honor. On August 1, 2013, the search engine Google honored Maria Mitchell with a Google doodle showing her in cartoon form on top of a roof gazing through a telescope in search of comets.
Professional experience: Nantucket Atheneum, librarian (1836–1856)
Great Fire of 1846 and seeing personal documents
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