Maria Mitchell - An Early American Astronomer
Maria Salmon Mitchell of Massachusetts was the first professional female astronomer of the United States of America. Her most popular achievement was the discovery of the “Miss Mitchell’s comet” for which she was awarded a coveted prize by the King of Denmark –a gold medal. Mitchell made this hallmark discovery in 1847 using a four-inch telescope mounted at the roof and set up by her father. Mitchell was recognized as the first to identify the comet, which is also known in the scientific community as C/1847 T1, and made additional observations to help determine the comets orbital path.
The discovery of the comet paved the way for Mitchell to pursue her dreams in astronomy. Because of Mitchell’s tireless scientific pursuits, she became the first woman awarded membership to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848. She was also elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1869 as the first female member.
In the course of her career, Mitchell also discovered the true nature of sunspots. From her observations, what were once thought of as “clouds” on the surface of the sun were determined to be whirling vertical cavities—a discovery that changed many perspectives in the scientific community and paved the way for other new knowledge about the solar system. After her death, the scientific community gave Maria Mitchell a number of honors in recognition for her pioneering work. Perhaps, if she were alive the gesture that she would appreciate most was the naming of one of the craters of the moon, “Mitchell” in her honor.
Maria Salmon Mitchell was born on August 1, 1818 in Nantucket, an important whaling port in the 19th century. She was raised in the Quaker tradition. The whole community gave very high value to education and this quality would influence her later choices in life. Her father was William Mitchell, while her mother was Lydia Coleman. She was an enthusiastic learner and she thrived under her father’s tutoring. She also went to local schools, including the Elizabeth Gardener's Small School and the North Grammar School. Perhaps this early exposure to academics instilled in her the love for learning. She had eight siblings and all were educated in accordance with the Quaker belief that there ought to be intellectual equality between boys and girls. Maria and her siblings were fortunate in that they were raised in a community that believed boys and girls had equal rights to formal education.
Mitchell was a first cousin four times removed of American statesman Benjamin Franklin.
Mariah grew up in a family that loved to read books. She and her siblings were encouraged to explore, question, and discover things about the world. As Maria moved on to her teens, there were many opportunities for Mitchell to further her knowledge and quench her insatiable desire to learn. Mariah has the chance to work as a teaching assistant in a school that was built by her father. Before she delved into astronomy more deeply she served as the first librarian of Nantucket Atheneum Library, which gave her the opportunity to read more books while she was earning an adequate salary. She maintained this job for 20 years before she moved on to becoming a college professor.
The young scientist
Maria Mitchell’s interest in astronomy started with lessons on navigation and surveying from her father. Because she showed aptitude in the fields of mathematics and science, she became a sort of apprentice to him. When she was twelve going on thirteen, Maria helped her father conduct calculations with regard to the exact position of their home in Nantucket from observations of a solar eclipse. She was already providing accurate navigational computations for whalers by the time she was 14 years old. Her father was also the one who taught her how to use a telescope properly. Father and daughter shared this passion for science and through the years, they continued to make astronomical observations using the equipment that they have acquired.
During the time that Maria was working as a librarian, her father had the opportunity to install a new four-inch telescope, which he then used to perform astronomical observations at the behest of the US Coast Guard. This telescope was the one she used in tracking a comet in the year 1847, the discovery of which was credited to her. The older Mitchell was the one who informed Harvard University’s Professor William Bond about Maria’s important discovery. Maria’s painstaking observations in the course of a few days helped add to the body of knowledge about these rare heavenly bodies.
The discovery of a comet
When the Pacific National Bank on Main Street employed Maria Mitchell’s father as a cashier, he took the chance to set up a telescope from the roof of the building. Maria often used the telescope to join him or to make her own observations. On October 1, 1947, she spotted a blurry object, which was not identified on the existing astronomical charts of the day. It was the moment when Maria Mitchell discovered a comet that will forevermore bear her name. Mitchell announced the discovery to her father, but it was only in October 3, 1847 that they informed the scientific community of the discovery, after Maria had painstakingly charted the comet’s course.
It was a fortuitous time for Mitchell because King Frederick VI of Denmark promised a great prize for every new comet discovered. With her find, Mitchell received a gold medal from King Frederic VI. Although other people saw the comet, Mitchell was acknowledged as the first to observe and document it. It was quite rare to find an amateur female astronomer with a major discovery made from a telescope mounted at the roof of her home and so her discovery was much publicized.
The public was smitten by Mitchell, and after King Frederic VI presented her with the gold medal, her life changed overnight. The sudden rise to fame was often bemusing for the shy librarian, and Mitchell wrote about her experiences in her diary. In one entry, she wrote, “One does enjoy acting the part of greatness for a while! I was tired after three days of it, and glad to take the cars and run away.”
Every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God.
The beauty of the night sky
Maria Mitchell has utter respect for the night sky, not only because she saw endless possible discoveries, but also because of its sheer beauty. She was particularly taken with the “varieties of color.” In one journal entry, she remarked, “What a pity that some of our manufacturers shouldn't be able to steal the secret of dyestuffs from the stars.”
Mitchell was quoted saying, “We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.” These words reflect the attitude that fueled her during the long, grueling, and solitary hours of astronomical observations and pushed her to keep pushing forward towards achieving her goals. Maria Mitchell brought inspiration to aspiring astronomers by her example, especially women who were, at that time, not offered the same opportunities as male scientists.
During the time that Mitchell was employed at the United States Nautical Almanac Office, she focused primarily in performing calculations on the positions of Venus, the second planet of the solar system. Her work allowed her to travel to Europe with American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne and his family. Upon her return to the United States, women who collected money to buy her a new telescope presented her with the new equipment. With this instrument, she proceeded to observe astronomical events such as sunspots and made other important discoveries. Since her work on astronomy took most of her time, Mitchell eventually resigned her post as librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum Library in 1865. She traveled to Europe and across the United States.
While she was a faculty member of Vassar College later on in her career, she was also appointed as the Director of the Vassar College Observatory where she focused on studying the gas planets of the outer solar system, Saturn and Jupiter. At the new observatory, Mitchell had direct access to the third largest telescope in the United States of America at that time. A 12-inch calibrated instrument gave her many opportunities to study the surface of the two biggest gas planets in the solar system. She also used her telescope time to photograph stars.
In the course of her career as an astronomer, she devoted her time to studying the planets Saturn and Jupiter as well as their moons, sunspots, comets, stars, and nebulae. She also made detailed observations of solar eclipses.
Myths and Truths of Maria Mitchell
Professor of Astronomy
Mitchell served as Professor of Astronomy at Vassar College from 1865 to 1888, the year that she retired. She was “Miss Mitchell” and she was a devoted professor until her health failed her and she had to stop teaching. She died a year after in 1889 leaving behind a legacy unequalled by her peers. Mitchell was the first individual appointed to the faculty roster of Vassar College proceeding other prestigious names, male or female that taught there.
Prof. Mitchell instilled in her students her own practice of “learning by doing.” She was particularly keen about instructing them on the value of observation in scientific endeavors. Many of her former students remember her asking them whether the remark they made was from their own observation or something taken from a book. She became a role model for her students and she exemplified the importance of the tenet by conducting actual observation of phenomenon whenever the chance presents itself. For example, she brought her students to Colorado in order to witness a total solar eclipse, travelling more than 2,000 miles with them for the event.
She was a beloved teacher at Vassar who inspired students. She pushed them to do their best and to believe that they could also achieve the same successes as their male counterparts.
Equal rights for women
Maria Mitchell was a pioneer in two important fields—education and astronomy. She was only too aware of the significance of her achievements and her position, and so she chose to take advantage of her fame to speak for women’s rights.
During her lifetime, Maria Mitchell thought herself equal to men in all respects. Having been raised in a Quaker environment, which promoted equality between the sexes, Mitchell never once wavered in her conviction that she was entitled to the same rights and privileges. When she learned that her salary was less than younger male professors of less experience and prominence, she demanded an increase in her salary, which was granted to her.
In championing women’s rights, she joined the initiative to form the American Association for the Advancement of Women. She was one of the founders of this organization in 1873. The same year she attended the first meeting of Women’s Congress. She also served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Women from 1874-1876.
Maria Mitchell also forged close friendships with Julia Ward Howe and Elizabeth Cady Stanton who were prominent suffrage leaders.
Maria Mitchell: America’s First Celebrity Scientist
Honoring Maria Mitchell’s Legacy
Professor Mitchell never married and after she retired and was taken ill, she lived at Lynn, Massachusetts with one of her married sisters. She died in 1889 and she was buried in Nantucket in the same cemetery where her parents were interred. One of the honors posthumously bestowed upon her was the renaming of the local observatory to “The Maria Mitchell Observatory.” It was just one of the many honors that Maria Mitchell received upon her death. To honor her achievements when she was alive, she was inducted into the United States National Women’s Hall of Fame. Many decades later, the World War II Liberty ship SS Maria Mitchell was named after her. In 1902, the Maria Mitchell Foundation was established.
Maria Mitchell was also vehemently opposed to slavery, and she became very vocal about her views. Aside from championing women’s rights, she was also an anti-slavery advocate and made good use of her reputation and position to support these movements.
Carey, Charles Jr. American Scientists. Fact on File, Inc. 2006.
Gormley, B. Maria Mitchell - The Soul of an Astonomer. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1995.
Baron, D. American Eclipse - A Nation's Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World. Liveright Publishing Corporation. 2017.
© 2014 Doug West