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Maria Mitchell

Maria Mitchell

The American astronomer and educator Maria Mitchell (1818-1889) was the first woman in America to become a professional astronomer. She discovered a new comet and worked out its orbit and added several new nebulae to sky maps.

Born in Nantucket, Mass., on Aug. 1, 1818, Maria Mitchell was the daughter of an amateur astronomer who made a living by rating chronometers brought to him by returning ships' captains. She learned astronomy and mathematics while working as her father's helper and continued her private study for 20 years while working as librarian of the town of Atheneum.

Her discovery of a new comet in 1847 brought Mitchell worldwide recognition from other astronomers and scientists and a gold medal from the King of Denmark. In 1848 she became the first woman to be elected an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, was appointed a computer for the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac, and was presented with a new telescope by a group of American women in recognition of her achievement. In 1857-1858 she traveled abroad in order to visit observatories and meet European scientists, some of whom she had been corresponding with earlier.

After the death of her mother in 1861, Mitchell and her father moved to Lynn, Mass., the same year that plans began to be laid for the founding of Vassar College, the first institution in America dedicated to the higher education of women. In 1865, after some initial reluctance, she accepted the invitation of Matthew Vassar to become the first professor of astronomy at Vassar. The only member of the original faculty widely known both at home and abroad, she has been credited with a major role in the success of the institution both by her name, which inspired confidence in the college, and by her remarkable teaching ability.

In 1869 Mitchell received a further honor by being elected a member of the American Philosophical Society. She was also the recipient of honorary degrees from several universities. She died June 28, 1889, at Lynn, where she had retired to work in her small private observatory. In 1908 the Maria Mitchell Astronomical Observatory, built on Nantucket Island by a fund raised by American women, was dedicated to the memory of Maria Mitchell, who had become a symbol of what a woman could accomplish in the scholarly world when given opportunity and encouragement.

Further Reading

A well-written biography by a writer thoroughly versed in astronomy is Helen Wright, Sweeper in the Sky: The Life of Maria Mitchell, First Woman Astronomer in America (1949). See also Mrs. Phebe Mitchell Kendall, comp., Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters, and Journals (1896), and Mary King Babbitt, Maria Mitchell as Her Students Knew Her: An Address (1912). □

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Mitchell, Maria

MITCHELL, MARIA

(b. Nantucket, Massachusetts, 1 August 1818; d. Lynn, Massachusetts, 28 June 1889)

astronomy.

Maria Mitchell, the first woman astronomer in America, was the third of ten children of William and Lydia Coleman Mitchell. She was educated chiefly by her father, a man of wide culture. As a small child she helped him with the observations that he made for the purpose of checking the chronometers of whaling ships, while in 1831, during an annular eclipse of the sun, she assisted him in timing the contacts that he used to determine the longitude of Nantucket.

When she was eighteen, Maria Mitchell became librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum, a post that she held for twenty-four years. At the same time she conducted astronomical observations, sweeping the skies on clear evenings. It was thus that, on 1 October 1847, she discovered a new telescopic comet, for which discovery she was awarded a gold medal by the king of Denmark and became world famous.

From 1849 until 1868 Maria Mitchell was employed by the U.S. Nautical Almanac Office to compute the ephemerides of the planet Venus. She resigned her post there reluctantly when her academic duties at Vassar Female College, of which she had been a faculty member since its founding in 1865, demanded her full attention. At Vassar she was both professor of astronomy and director of the college observatory, positions that she fulfilled with great distinction until her death.

Maria Mitchell was the first woman to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; she also belonged to the American Philosophical Society and to the American Association for the Advancement of Women (of which she was president in 1870 and subsequently chairman of its Committee on Women’s Work in Science). Of the many memorials established in her honor after her death, the Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association (founded in 1902, with headquarters at her birthplace that incorporate an observatory, a science library, and a natural seience museum) is of particular interest.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Maria Mitchell’s published scientific papers were short and few. Apart from the notes listed in Poggendorff, she wrote a few less technical articles for Atlantic Monthly, Hours at Home, and Century.

On Maria Mitchell and her work, see Phoebe Mitchell Kendall, Maria Mitchell. Life, Letters, mul Journals (Boston, 1896); Helen Wright, Sweeper in the Sky (New York, 1950), and “Mitchell, Maria,” in Notable American Women, II (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), 554–556; and Annual Reports. Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association.

Dorrit Hofflet

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Mitchell, Maria

Mitchell, Maria


American Astronomer 18181889

Maria Mitchell, America's first prominent woman astronomer, was one of ten children born to William Mitchell and Lydia Coleman. Mitchell showed a talent for mathematics and an enthusiasm for the field of astronomy at an early age. In 1838, at the age of 20, she became a librarian at the Nantucket Atheneum, which gave her the opportunity to further study astronomy.

On the evening of October 1, 1847, in the observatory built by her father, Mitchell sighted a comet using her father's 2-inch telescope, which earned her international recognition and a gold medal from the king of Denmark.

Throughout her career, Mitchell was the first woman elected to many prestigious organizations, such as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1848) and the American Philosophical Society (1869). She served as president of the Association for the Advancement of Women (1873). In 1865, she accepted an appointment to Vassar College to become director of the observatory and became the first woman to join the faculty as a professor of astronomyposts she held until her retirement in 1888. The observatory, built in 1864 for Mitchell, housed her original telescope until 1964, at which time it was donated to the Smithsonian Institution.

In addition to this recognition, she received many honors including honorary degrees from Hanover College (1853), Columbia University (1887), and an honorary doctorate from Rutgers Female College. The Boston Public Library and a public school in Denver, Colorado are named in her honor, as well as a crater on the moon. She died in Lynn, Massachusetts, on June 28, 1889.

see also Astronomer; Astronomy, Measurement in.

Gay A. Ragan

Bibliography

Merriam, Eve. "Maria Mitchell, Astronomer." In Growing Up Female in America. ed. Eve Merriam. New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1971.

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Celebrating Women in Mathematics and Science. Reston, VA: NCTM, 1996.

Yount, Lisa. A to Z of Women in Science and Math. New York: Facts on File, 1999.


MARIA MITCHELL HOUSE: A NATIONAL HISTORIC LANDMARK

The Maria Mitchell House, a National Historic Landmark, is located on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. The Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association, founded in 1902, maintains the property, which is open to the public.


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Mitchell, Maria

Maria Mitchell, 1818–89, American astronomer and educator, b. Nantucket, Mass. Mitchell taught school in Nantucket, and later became a librarian. On Oct. 1, 1847, Mitchell discovered a comet (1847 VI) not far from Polaris. She was the first woman to be elected (1848) to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1857 a group of Boston area women presented her with a 5-in. Alvan Clark refractor, with which she expanded her studies of sunspots, planets, and nebulae. By taking daily photographs of the sun, she made many discoveries about the nature of sunspots. In 1865 Mitchell became professor of astronomy at Vassar College and taught several distinguished women astronomers. After her death her students continued to visit her birthplace in Nantucket; it is preserved as the Mitchell House. The Maria Mitchell Observatory was built next door, and in 1912 Harvard established a research program there. In 1913 a 7.5-in. (19.1 cm) photographic refractor was added. The Observatory has an archive of over 8,000 photographs of variable star fields, and offers a summer program for young people about to enter college.

See biographies by P. M. Kendall (1896), M. K. Babbitt (1912), and H. Wright (1949, repr. 1959).

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