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Maria Mitchell: The First Female Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Updated on February 23, 2022

Maria Mitchell - Astronomer

A true pioneer in the world of science and astronomy, Maria Mitchell helped pave the way for modern stargazing as we know it today. The Massachusetts-born Mitchell is widely remembered for her 1847 comet discovery and for her tireless efforts to advance the science of astronomy.

Public domain photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Maria Mitchell as depicted by artist Henry Dasell (1851)

U. S. Government public domain photo courtesy

Born into a devoutly Quaker household, Maria Mitchell's childhood years were largely focused on education. Chiefly home-schooled by her father William, (an amateur astronomer himself) Maria quickly developed a love for stargazing. She was such an intelligent and hard-working student that she was assisting her dad in his astronomic calculations by the age of ten.

Mitchell would later join a Unitarian school for young women as a student and teaching assistant. Later, in 1836, Maria accepted a position as the head librarian at the Nantucket Library.

In 1865, Maria Mitchell became the first person appointed to the faculty of prestigious Vassar College, located in Southeastern New York State.

comet of 1847
comet of 1847

Maria Mitchell's main claim to fame came in 1847, when she discovered what became known as "Miss Mitchell's Comet". This discovery brought Maria global recognition largely due to the prestigious prize that came with it. A gold medal prize was in place for each comet found via telescope (established by Denmark's King Frederick VI) and Mitchell received this coveted prize in a lavish 1848 ceremony.

Around 1850, Mitchell became the first female member of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and American Academy of Arts and Sciences, both ground-breaking organizations. In 1865, Maria joined Vassar College as astronomy professor. She was the first person hired to teach at the historic institution.

Public domain photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Maria Mitchell Quote

"We all have a hunger of the mind. We all crave an understanding of the knowledge around us and the more we receive, the more we desire." - Maria Mitchell

Quote via


Maria Mitchell was inducted into the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in 1905

Public domain photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Mitchell remained active in her teachings until shortly before her death in 1889. In her later years, she became actively involved in several equal rights movements and was a co-founder of the American Association for the Advancement of Women. For her extraordinary efforts, Maria was elected to both the U.S. National Women's Hall of Fame and to the American Philosophical Society.

Maria Mitchell's name is etched in history in several ways. There was a ship in WWII named the SS Maria Mitchell, the Maria Mitchell Observatory opened in Nantucket in 1908, and a crater on the Moon (Crater Mitchell) was also justly named in her honor.

Maria Mitchell Observatory Nantucket
Maria Mitchell Observatory Nantucket

The Maria Mitchell Observatory (above) opened in 1908

Public domain photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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