Maria Mitchell (pronounced Ma-RYE-ah) was an astronomer, librarian, naturalist, and above all, educator. She discovered a comet through a telescope, for which she was awarded a gold medal by the King of Denmark. She was then thrust into the international spotlight and became America’s first professional female astronomer.
Born to Quaker parents William and Lydia Mitchell on Nantucket on August 1, 1818, Mitchell was an avid learner. The Quaker tradition taught that both boys and girls should be educated and Maria received an education at local schools and from her father’s tutoring. Her father was a great influence on her life; Maria developed her love of astronomy from his instruction on surveying and navigation. At age 12, Maria helped her father calculate the position of their home by observing a solar eclipse. By 14, sailors trusted her to do vital navigational computations for their long whaling journeys. Maria pursued her love of learning as a young woman, becoming the Nantucket Atheneum’s first librarian. She and her father continued to acquire astronomical equipment and conduct observations.
On October 1st, 1847, Maria was sweeping the sky from the roof of the Pacific National Bank on Main Street, where her father was a cashier. She spotted a small blurry object that did not appear on her charts. She had discovered a comet! After achieving her fame, Maria was widely sought after and went on to achieve many great things. She resigned her post at the Atheneum in 1856 to travel throughout the US and Europe. In 1865, she became Professor of Astronomy at the newly-founded Vassar College.
Maria was an inspiration to her students. It was Vassar College that Maria felt was truly her home. She believed in learning by doing, and in the capacity of women to achieve what their male counterparts could. “Miss Mitchell” was beloved by her students whom she taught until her retirement in 1888, due to failing health. She died in 1889, and was buried next to her parents in Nantucket’s Prospect Hill Cemetery.
“We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.” –Maria Mitchell
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