Mitchell, Maria

Mitchell, Maria,

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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Mitchell, Maria

(1818–89) astronomer; born in Nantucket, Mass. Daughter of an amateur astronomer, she grew up with a love of mathematics and practical experience in astronomical observations. In 1836 she became librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum, and her 20 years there would provide the intellectual stimulus in lieu of a college education. She continued to help her father make observations of stars, work recognized by the U.S. Coast Survey. Then in 1847 she discovered a new comet, and this led to a gold medal from the King of Denmark as well as her becoming the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1848), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1850), and the American Philosophical Society (1869). After a trip to Europe (1857–58), she was presented with a fine telescope by a group of progressive women. When the Vassar Female College was founded, she became the first professor of astronomy there (1865–88) and while earning the reputation as an inspiring teacher—many of her students became prominent in the sciences and other professions—she continued her own researches, mainly into the solar system. A founder of the Association for the Advancement of Women (1873), she was its president (1875–76) and chaired the science committee until her death. She continued to stress the desirability of including both women and the scientific method in all aspects of life.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.