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Maria Mitchell

Born August 1, 1818, Nantucket, Massachusetts; Died June 28, 1889, Lynn, Massachusetts.

Maria Mitchell was the first American woman to discover a comet. She was also the first woman astronomer in the United States.

Maria (pronounced "ma - RYE - a") grew up on Nantucket Island off the coast of Massachusetts. Her father, William Mitchell, was an astronomer and must have had some of the best seeing possible since he observed from such a remote location.

At 17 Maria began working as a librarian at the Nantucket Athenaeum. During her spare time, she taught herself astronomy, reading every book available on mathematics and science. In the evenings Maria assisted her father and worked to develop her skills.

On the evening of October 1, 1847 Maria was helping her father with observations for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey when she noticed a fuzzy spot of light a few degrees from the celestial North Pole. She carefully recorded her observations and checked again the following evening. Sure enough, its position had changed enough to confirm her suspicion that it was a comet. It was later confirmed that she had been the first to see it. She continued her observations and obtained enough data to calculate the comet's orbit.

Maria was recognized by many for her achievement and was elected the following year (1848) to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS). All the while, she continued in her librarian position by day and assisted her father by night. Later, during her professional career, she became a university professor of astronomy. This helped to guide many women into science. For you see, the notion of women in science was unheard of in America before Maria Mitchell. When she discovered that comet on October 1, 1847 she became the first American woman to do so. Likewise she was the first woman elected to the AAAS. And in 1865, when she became the first professor of astronomy and director of the observatory at Vassar College, she again blazed a new trail.

Her pioneering photographic studies of the Sun and the planets as well as her academic instruction were inspirational to a generation of women in science. A small facility on Nantucket Island, known as the Maria Mitchell Observatory, commemorates her achievements as the first women astronomer in the United States.

Bibliography

Hellemans, Alexander and Bunch, Bryan H. Timetables of Science: A Chronology of the Most Important People and Events in the History of Science, The. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1991.


James M. Thomas, last updated October 13, 1999.

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