Maria Mitchell’s Gold Medal

Maria Mitchell portrait

A portrait by artist Herminia B.Dassel that depicts Maria wearing typical Quaker dress and observing through a telescope similar to the family’s “little Dollond.” (Collection of Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association)

On October 1, 1847, Maria Mitchell climbed the stairs to the roof of the Pacific National Bank to “sweep the sky” with the family’s telescope, a brass 2 3/4 inch refractor that they called “the Little Dollond.” While looking over a familiar patch of sky, Maria noticed an object she had never seen before, and went to her father to declare that she may have seen a new comet. William Mitchell urged her to make her discovery public, but Maria was reluctant to announce her success because she was a woman and she feared that the scientific community would not be open to her. William, however, was determined that Maria’s discovery be recognized, and wrote to other influential astronomers in an effort to gather support. He first wrote to his friend and colleague William C. Bond, the director of the Observatory at Harvard College (now University) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The President of Harvard, Edward Everett, then wrote to William Mitchell, asking whether he was aware that Maria could claim a medal from the King of Denmark for her new comet.

An amateur astronomer himself, Frederick VI, the King of Denmark, decided to offer a gold medal to the first observer to see any new telescopic comet. Frederick VI died in 1839, but his son, Christian VIII, continued to award these medals. Maria was almost denied her medal because William Bond and her father failed to follow the proper procedure for alerting the Danish government of Maria’s discovery. However, more than a year later, the gold medal finally arrived on Nantucket.

The gold medal awarded to Maria Mitchell in 1848 by King Christopher VIII of Denmark in recognition of her discovery of Comet 1847-VI.

The gold medal awarded to Maria Mitchell in 1848 by King Christian VIII of Denmark in recognition of her discovery of Comet 1847-VI.

The discovery of the comet, Comet 1847-VI informally known as “Miss Mitchell’s Comet,” was the event that made Maria famous. She was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in 1848 as a result. Maria’s father William Mitchell was already a member.

The gold medal is today a part of the Maria Mitchell collections.

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