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August 01

Maria Mitchell. Photo of a painting by Herminia Borchard Dassel  (1821-1857) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Photo of a painting by Herminia Borchard Dassel (1821-1857).

Today in Science

First Professional American Woman Astronomer Maria Mitchell Is Born

Maria Mitchell, the first professional American woman astronomer, was born on this day in 1818 in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Mitchell was also the first woman member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, two years after its formation, in 1850.

Mitchell was born to Quaker parents who believed in the education of all of their ten children, regardless of gender. Mitchell received a formal education, as well as learning from her father, who was a schoolteacher, banker, and astronomer. He also helped to maintain chronometers, a timepiece sailors used to measure longitude based on time and celestial navigation, for the local whaling fleet. His daughter would assist him in doing astronomical observations and later was trusted to complete them on her own.

In 1835, at the age of 17, Mitchell founded her own elementary school, which was open to girls regardless of race. The following year, Mitchell left the school to take a job at the Nantucket Athaneum, then a private, but affordable, library. She remained at the Athaneum until 1856.

On Oct. 1, 1847, Mitchell was using a two-inch telescope on a Nantucket rooftop when she noticed a blurry object that did not appear on her star charts. This turned out to be a comet, which became known as "Miss Mitchell's Comet" and later C/1847 T1. She became the third woman, after two 18th-century German astronomers—Caroline Herschel and Maria Margarethe Kirch—to discover a comet. King Frederick VI of Denmark, who had offered a prize for the discovery of new comets, awarded Mitchell a medal. She also became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences because of her discovery.

In 1865, Mitchell was the first person invited to join the faculty of the newly established Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. She accepted the founder's invitation, in part because it came with the promise of an observatory outfitted with a 12-inch telescope, then the second largest in the country. She went on to become a beloved professor, teaching more than 20 years and nurturing her students' abilities as researchers in their own right. Her students did independent, original research and even engaged in field work with Mitchell's professional peers during the solar eclipses of 1869 and 1878. Mitchell, who was involved in suffrage organizations and who served as the second president of the American Association of Women, also organized discussions and lectures for her students about women's rights and politics.

Mitchell died in 1889.

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