Mitchell, Maria

views updated Jun 08 2018


Born 1 August 1818, Nantucket Island, Massachusetts; died 28

June 1889, Lynn, Massachusetts Daughter of William and Lydia Coleman Mitchell

Maria Mitchell was born in Massachusetts on the island of Nantucket, the second daughter and third of 10 children of Lydia and William Mitchell. Her ancestors were members of the Society of Friends who had migrated from England to America. Encouraged by several factors, astronomer Mitchell pursued an unconventional life pattern for a 19th-century woman. Her Quaker background, a mother who had worked in two libraries in order to read all the books they contained, a father with a passion for astronomy and an unswerving belief that a girl's education should be comparable to those given to boys, and a geographical location that stimulated the study of natural phenomena all combined to encourage Mitchell to follow her passion for mathematics and astronomy. As the first woman astronomer, Mitchell was also the first woman scientist to gain international recognition, and she was one of very few scientists to be known by people outside her field.

As a child, Mitchell was insatiably curious. After attending local private elementary schools from the age of four, she enrolled in a school run by her father. His was a remarkable institution where observation of nature predominated, a pedagogy that Mitchell would later put to good use during her illustrious career at Vassar College. Established in 1827, William Mitchell's method stressed fieldwork—the collecting of stones, shells, seaweed, and flowers. After William Mitchell gave up his school, Maria was sent to Cyrus Peirce's school for "young ladies." Peirce, who later became principal of the first Normal School in the United States, was intrigued by Maria's mathematical abilities and encouraged her in this area. Although she later insisted that she "was born of only ordinary capacity, but of extraordinary persistency," Peirce "saw in her the quality of self-discipline together with the rare insight which makes the difference between a creative life and the prosaic existence of a mere fact collector." At age sixteen the formal education of Maria Mitchell—later the recipient of two honorary LL. D.s and an honorary Ph.D.—ended. On her own, she labored over Bridge's Conic Sections, Hutton's Mathematics, and Bowditch's Practical Navigator. She studied the works of Lagrange, Laplace, and Legendre in French, and she carefully considered Gauss' Theoria motus corporeum coelestium.

In 1835 Maria Mitchell opened her own school. Her pupils were greeted with an unconventional approach to education. School might begin before dawn in order that the students could watch birds. The school day might extend late into the night so they could observe the planets and stars. In 1836 Mitchell was offered the post of librarian at the new Nantucket Athenaeum. This position allowed her time to continue her own studies.

On 1 October 1847 Mitchell observed a new comet. When it was established she was, indeed, the first discoverer, the comet was named for her, and she gained worldwide fame when the king of Denmark awarded her a gold medal. With this discovery, Mitchell gained more attention as a leading astronomer in both the U.S. and Europe. As a result of her discovery of the comet, in 1848 Mitchell became the first woman ever elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her name was proposed by Louis Agassiz, the well-known American naturalist and geologist. She also became a member of the newly formed American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1850 and formed a lifelong friendship with Joseph Henry, director of the Smithsonian Institution.

William Mitchell spent most of his evenings observing the heavens. As his children grew old enough, they became his assistants. Maria learned to operate a sextant at an early age. When she was eighteen, her father began making astronomical observations for the U.S. Coast Survey. Mitchell helped her father with his work and together they made thousands of observations of meridian altitudes of stars for the determination of time and latitude and of moon culminations and occultations for longitude.

Mitchell became a computer for the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac, a post she held for 19 years. In this capacity she made measurements that helped in the accurate determination of time, latitude, and longitude. Nantucket was often visited by famous people, many of whom, like the writer Herman Melville, "passed the evening with Mr. Mitchell, the astronomer, and his celebrated daughter, the discoverer of comets."

An opportunity to travel abroad occurred in 1857 when Mitchell was asked to chaperone the daughter of a wealthy Chicago banker on a trip through Europe. Equipped with letters of introduction, Mitchell seized the opportunity to visit observatories in England and on the Continent. One of the high points of her trip was a meeting with the seventy-seven-old physicist and astronomer, Mary Somerville: "I could not but admire Mrs. Somerville as a woman. The ascent of the steep and rugged path of science had not unfitted her for the drawing room circle; the hours of devotion to close study have not been incompatible with the duties of wife and mother; the mind that has turned to rigid demonstration has not thereby lost its faith in those truths which figures will not prove."

Mitchell's career turned from a focus on research to teaching when she accepted an offer from Matthew Vassar to become professor of astronomy and director of the observatory at the newly founded Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Mitchell became an ardent and impassioned proponent of higher education for woman. She considered ridiculous the prevalent view that women were innately unsuited to mathematics and other sciences. Once again her teaching methods were unorthodox. Instead of lectures, of which she heartily disapproved, she stressed small classes and individual attention. Keenly aware of what defined scientific excellence, Mitchell made a deliberate choice to commit herself to teaching rather than to theoretical astronomy. At a time when higher education for women was in its infancy, she decided that her talents would be of most use in this area. Because she was a devoted teacher, her research time was sharply limited.

Mitchell, reared on the model of Nantucket women and forced to be independent by her husband's, son's, and father's long absences at sea, taught her students to "question everything else." She insisted on their learning not by rote but from observation. Her commitment to the higher education of women only increased over time. In 1873 she was a founder of the Association for the Advancement of Women and for two years served as its president; until her death she was chair of its science committee. Year after year, at scientific meetings and A.A.W. congresses and in lectures, she pleaded for a recognition of women's scientific abilities. In recognition of this breadth of outlook, she was in 1869 elected to the American Philosophical Society—again the first woman so honored—and in 1873 was made a vice-president of the American Social Science Association.

With her health failing, Mitchell retired from Vassar College on Christmas Day, 1888. She returned to Lynn, Massachusetts, where she died in 1889. Mitchell did not feel she was a theoretician, but rather a teacher and observer. She saw a conflict in trying to do both, remarking that "the scientist should be free to pursue his investigations. He cannot be a scientist and a schoolmaster." She believed strongly in the value of imagination in science, saying, "It is not all mathematics, nor all logic but is somewhat beauty and poetry." A crater on the moon was named after her and a society established in her honor—the Maria Mitchell Association of Nantucket, which maintains the Maria Mitchell Observatory.

Other Works:

Articles: "Mary Somerville," Atlantic Monthly 5 (May 1860). "On Jupiter and its Satellites," American Journal of Science and Arts (1871). "Astronomical Notes," Scientific American (1876). "The Need of Women in Science," Association for the Advancement of Women: Papers Read at the Fourth Congress of Women (1876). "Notes on the Satellites of Saturn," American Journal of Science Arts (1879). "The Astronomical Science of Milton as Shown in Paradise Lost," Poet-Lore (June 1894).


Kendall, P. M., Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals (1896). Wright, H., Sweeper in the Sky: The Life of Maria Mitchell (1949).

Reference works:

American Women in Science (1994). Biographical Encyclopedia of Scientists (1998). Dictionary of Scientific Biography (1974). NAW (1971). Notable Women in the Physical Sciences (1997). Women in Science: Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century (1986).


Mitchell, Maria

views updated May 14 2018

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


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.


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.

Mitchell, Maria

views updated May 23 2018


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


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.


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

Maria Mitchell

views updated May 14 2018

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). □

Maria Mitchell

views updated May 23 2018

Maria Mitchell


The first female astronomer in America. She grew up helping her father make astronomical observations for New England whaling ships. In 1847 she discovered a new comet. From 1849-1868 she worked at the U.S. Nautical Almanac Office to calculate the ephemerides of Venus before resigning to devote all of her time to her job as professor of astronomy and director of the college observatory at Vassar Female College. She was the first woman to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

About this article

Maria Mitchell

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic


Maria Mitchell