Maria Mitchell: The First Woman Astronomy Professor

On an October night in 1847, a telescope on the roof of the Pacific National Bank building on Nantucket Island was trained onto the deep black sky. At the eyepiece was an accomplished amateur astronomer on the verge of a major discovery — a new comet, one not recorded in any almanac. The comet, which we today know by the dry designator C/1847 T1, is more popularly known as “Miss Mitchell’s Comet,” named after its discoverer, a 29-year old woman named Maria Mitchell. The discovery of the comet would, after a fashion, secure her reputation as a scholar and a scientist, but it was hardly her first success, and it wouldn’t be her last by a long shot.

Maria Mitchell. Source: The Nantucket Atheneum

To say that Maria Mitchell’s life did not follow the typical path of a 19th-century woman’s life is something of an understatement. Nantucket Island was still decades away from the brief burst of prosperity it would find in the rise of the whaling trade when Maria — she pronounced her name with a long “I” sound — was born in 1818. Her parents were Quakers and much involved in Maria’s education, at a time when girls were not necessarily afforded the same opportunities as boys.

It was Maria’s father who would turn her eyes to the skies and serve as her mentor. William Mitchell was an educator, being principal of Maria’s grammar school and later starting his own school. He also had a keen interest in surveying and, suitably enough for life on a seafaring island, navigation and astronomy. William taught Maria how to use navigation instruments, with which she made observations and calculations. By the time she was 14, Maria’s navigational calculations were in demand by the island’s sailors as they set out on their journeys.

At the end of her formal education in 1836, Maria became the librarian of the brand new Nantucket Atheneum. A mix of library and museum, the Atheneum was to be a cultural and intellectual institution, and Maria would remain there for twenty years. With her father, she continued her studies of the heavens, with bigger and better instruments.

Miss Mitchell’s Comet

Maria’s comet discovery in 1847 was not without controversy. In 1832, Danish king Frederick VI established a gold medal prize for anyone who discovered a comet using a telescope. Maria was not alone in observing the comet that would bear her name. On October 3, 1847, Italian astronomer and Jesuit priest Francesco de Vico observed the same comet, quickly wrote up his findings, and posted them to the award committee. Being closer, news of the discovery reached Denmark sooner, and de Vico was awarded the medal. However, Maria had made her observations on October 1, and when the news eventually reached Europe, the prize was awarded to her.

“Miss Mitchell’s Comet” earned Maria a degree of international fame, and while she hated the attention, it provided her with opportunities. After resigning from the Atheneum, Maria traveled around the world, making observations at the Vatican Observatory and conducting several expeditions to study eclipses. As Maria’s reputation grew, she began to accumulate honors — in 1848, she was the first woman to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and two years later to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Founder and Pioneer

Maria Mitchell (standing 3rd from right) and her first astronomy class at Vassar. Source: Vassar College

In 1865, Maria, who never married, moved to Poughkeepsie, New York to the campus of the newly founded Vassar College, the first degree-granting college for women in the United States. Maria would become the first faculty member hired, and along with her widowed father, she lived in the observatory that was built to her specifications to house the second largest telescope in the country at the time.

Her students were expected to do original research in the observatory and in the field, a novelty at the time for students at men’s colleges and unheard of for women students. She traveled with her students to Iowa in 1869 to observe a total solar eclipse, and again to 1878 for another eclipse in Colorado. Such trips were difficult and dangerous in those days, and the sight of a group of women lugging scientific instruments into a frontier town in the midst of a gold rush must have been something to see.

Maria continued teaching and making observations right up until she retired in 1888 due to poor health; she would die a year later at the age of 70. Her contributions to astronomy are many; along with her comet discovery and her eclipse observations, she and her students built an apparatus for making solar photographs and made important observations about sunspots. But perhaps her most important contribution was as an educator and a mentor to her students, just as her father mentored her.

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