Maria Mitchell for Students

Comet

“This evening at half past ten Maria discovered a telescopic comet five degrees above Polaris.”  William Mitchell

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)

Maria climbed the stairs to the roof of the Pacific National Bank each night to “sweep the sky” with the family’s telescope, a brass 2 3/4 inch refractor that they called “the Little Dollond.” On October 1,

1847, Maria is said to have left a family party to “don her regimentals” and observe. 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. A comet is a frozen mass, often made of rock and ice that orbits around the Sun. 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 successor, 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 discovery of the comet, called Comet 1847-VI and informally 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. Maria was the first female member. Although she was now a famous astronomer, Maria remained librarian of the Atheneum. She was hired by the U.S. Nautical Almanac to track Venus, which, although it is a planet, was used as a navigational “star” by sailors at sea. Maria’s days now often included visits from people who wanted to meet one of the first women to have discovered a comet. Maria sometimes found her fame irritating, since it got in the way of her work. She often found people’s responses to her new social position funny. In 1854, Maria wrote: “My visitors…have been of the average sort. Four women have been delighted to make my acquaintance–three men have thought themselves in the presence of a superior being…One woman has opened a correspondence with me and several have told me that they knew friends of mine….I have become hardened to all.”

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