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Facts About Maria Mitchell - The First American Woman Astronomer

Raksha Kulkarni Nov 22, 2018
Maria Mitchell was the first American woman astronomer to taste instantaneous success when she charted the orbit of a new comet. This UniverSavvy post gives facts about her family, education, the first comet she discovered, and her other accomplishments.
"We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry."
― Maria Mitchell
Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818 to June 28, 1889) was a famous scientist of her time. Her father was an astronomer, whose work was to rate chronometers brought by ship captains. Maria owes all her knowledge of mathematics and astronomy to her father. She learned all of it while helping her father and working at the library.
There is very less information about her personal life. In 1861, her mother died. After that, Maria and her father shifted to Lynn, Massachusetts. She lived there all her life after that. Maria never married and stayed very close to her sister and family.
It is said that she herself burnt all her documents, fearing she would lose them in a fire. Read on to know more about her education and professional life.

Childhood and Education

✦ Maria Mitchell was born in Nantucket, Massachusetts in 1818. Her mother, Lydia Coleman Mitchell and her father, William Mitchell, were Quakers. She had nine sisters and brothers. The family believed in equality of men and women.
✦ She studied in Elizabeth Gardner's small school, where her father was the first principal. Her father built a new school when she was eleven. She studied and at the same time, assisted her father in teaching.
✦ Also, at home, her father taught her astronomy by using his own telescope. She grabbed all the knowledge very fast, and at the age of twelve and a half, she started to help her father calculate the exact time of an annular eclipse.
✦ After years of education and assisting teachers, she opened her own school in 1835. She took a tough decision of allowing non-white children in her school. This decision was considered a big thing in those days.

✦ A year later, she started working as the first librarian in the Nantucket Atheneum and continued for 20 years.

Her Accomplishments

✦ She discovered a new comet on October 1, 1847, which later came to be known as "Miss Mitchell's Comet". This gave her worldwide fame because she was the third woman to discover a comet in the whole world.
✦ Before her, Caroline Herschel and Maria Margarethe Kirch were the ones to achieve the same feat. Maria Mitchell got an award for her discovery from King Christopher VIII in 1848.
✦ She calculated tables of positions of Venus, while working at the U.S. Nautical Almanac Office, in 1849. She traveled to Europe with Nathaniel Hawthorne and his family, around the same time.
✦ Maria was the first woman who was elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848, and also inducted into the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1850.
✦ She was the first ever professor appointed at Vassar College to teach astronomy in 1865. Also, she was appointed as the Director of the Vassar College Observatory. She was allowed to use a 12-inch telescope there, the third largest in the U.S. then. She continued teaching there until her retirement in 1888.
✦ She was one of the first few women to be elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1869.
✦ She died on June 28, 1889, in Lynn, Massachusetts. In her honor, the Maria Mitchell Observatory was named and made a part of the Maria Mitchell Association. This association in Nantucket works to preserve the sciences, which include a Natural History Museum, Maria Mitchell's Home Museum, Science Library, and the Observatory.
✦ She was also introduced into the U.S. National Women's Hall of Fame after her death. A train has also been named "The Maria Mitchell Comet" in her honor, which goes near Vassar College.

✦ She co-founded the American Association for the Advancement of Women with Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
In addition to her contribution to astronomy, she lent her support to women's rights and firmly opposed slavery. She strongly advocated the fact that women should engage themselves in intellectual activities rather than spending their time on a sewing machine.
Although her name doesn't come up when we discuss the scientific contributions of famous scientists, she was a revered and familiar name during her time. Being the first woman astronomer, she opened the gates for other women to showcase their cerebral skills.