Maria Mitchell was an American Astronomer best known for the discovery of a comet later called, “Miss Mitchell’s Comet.” She was the first American woman to work as a professional astronomer.
Early Life of Maria Mitchell:
Maria Mitchell was born on 1st August 1818 in Nantucket Massachusetts. Her parents were William Mitchell and Lydia Coleman Mitchell. She was one of 10 children. They were a quaker family which meant they believed in equal rights for men and women giving Maria the type of education normally only men would receive and was responsible for developing her enjoyment of science. She was educated at North Grammar school where her father was Principal. He then opened his own school and Maria became a teaching Assistant. It was he that introduced her to astronomy at the age of 12. He too was a keen astronomer and she began helping him with such calculations as predicting annular eclipses. On the closure of her father’s school she moved to Cyrus Pierce’s School for Young Ladies. Once again she became a Teaching assistant.
Career development of Maria Mitchell
In 1835 she opened her own school and took the controversial step of allowing non white children to attend. This was in an era when nearly all schools were segregated. In 1836 she became the first librarian at Nantucket Atheum where she continued to work for the next 20 years.
Maria discovered the comet on the 1st October 1847 and she was only the second woman to do so following in the footsteps of Caroline Herschel. She was awarded a gold medal by King Frederick VI of Denmark for her discovery. he had established the award a few years earlier for those discovering comets with the use of telescopic equipment. In 1848 she became the first female member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences followed 2 years later by membership of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
In 1865 she was appointed as the first Professor employed by the Vassar College and was also named as director of the College Observatory. During this period she worked extensively on the planets of Jupiter and Saturn using photographic equipment of her own design to capture images of the planets.
Maria Mitchell believed in Equal Rights
Throughout her life perhaps due to her Quaker upbringing Maria Mitchell was a passionate believer in Equal Rights. She held strong views on suffrage and slavery. From 1874-1876 she helped to establish the American Association for the Advancement of Women. Examples of her principled stands included refusing to weaar cotton as a protest against slavery and demanding a pay increase when on appointment to Vassar College she discovered younger male academic staff were paid more than her. Her pay claim was met in full.
Later life of Maria Mitchell
Maria Mitchell never married but remained close to her family throughout her life despite having left the quaker faith in 1842. She lived with her sister Kate and Family in Lynn Massachusetts.She taught at Vassar until 1 year before her her death aged 70 in 1889. In Nantucket the “Marie Mitchell Observatory” now honours her achievement as does a crater on the moon also named for her.