In the mid-19th century, there were few places better than Nantucket, an island off the coast of Massachusetts, from which to observe the heavens. On a cool night in October 1847, Maria Mitchell took her place in the small observatory her father had built atop the Pacific National Bank and peered through a small telescope to discover something no one had seen previously: a rather blurry object that would soon be named “Miss Mitchell’s Comet” or, more formally, C/1847 T1.
Such a discovery was bound to gain attention. Not only was the comet named for Maria (pronounced Ma-RYE-uh), but she was awarded a gold medal by King of Denmark who was particularly interested in advancing astronomy. Perhaps more impressive was her election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences the following year – the first woman to earn the distinction and the only female member for almost a century after. Less impressive but telling was the salutation “Sir” on the Academy’s certificate of election (right).
Precocity as Prelude to Profession
Nantucket was a prosperous whaling center when Maria was born, in 1818, into a prominent Quaker family. William Mitchell, her father, was a banker, teacher, and astronomer who insisted that his daughter receive an education equal to that afforded to boys. Mariah was a precocious student and, at the age of only 17, established her own school to teach girls science and mathematics.
In 1835, Mitchell accepted a job as librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum. She was a voracious reader and spent most of her daylight free-time reading as many of the books under her care as possible. At night, she gazed at the stars from her father’s bank-roof observatory.
Her Career Takes Flight
Her discovery of “Miss Mitchell’s Comet” launched Maria’s professional career as an astronomer. Within a very few years, she was elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the equally prestigious American Philosophical Society. She also became (so far as is known) the first woman employed in a professional capacity by the federal government when, in 1849, she began earning a $300 per year salary from the U.S. Coast Survey for her services as a “celestial observer.”
Professor Mitchell Finds a Home
Mitchell continued her astronomical studies during the American Civil War, but she was also a fervent abolitionist who refused to wear clothing made of cotton produced in the southern states. And, she had a lifelong dedication to the advancement of women’s education. As it happened, the war coincided with a transformation of women’s education in America, including the establishment of new colleges for them in the Northeast.
Vassar College was founded in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1861, and its first building was an observatory. How appropriate then that Matthew Vassar should have recruited Maria Mitchell to become a professor of astronomy and the college’s first female faculty member. She arrived there, in 1865, with her widowed father, and the two moved right in to the newly completed Vassar Observatory.
Vassar's Iconic Educator
“Mitchell’s dome,” as it was sometimes called, was equipped with a 12-inch telescope and was designed to act as a classroom, a gathering place for special events, and a residence. Mitchell was a devoted and somewhat iconoclastic teacher who developed strong bonds with her students. At a time when most college studies were confined to daytime classrooms, she brought her students into the dome for nocturnal observations of the stars and planets. To broaden their learning experiences, she would lead them on field trips to observe astronomical events such as solar eclipses in places as far away as Iowa and Colorado.
“We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.” – Maria Mitchell
Mitchell was a central figure on the Vassar faculty for 23 years. Several of her students went on to successful careers in astronomy, including Antonia Maury, Mary Whitney, and Christine Ladd-Franklin. When she announced her retirement, in 1888, colleagues, alumnae, and students begged her to continue in residence at Vassar, but she chose to return to Massachusetts to live with family in the city of Lynn. She died the next year and was interred in Prospect Hill Cemetery on Nantucket.