Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Astronomer Maria Mitchell, Discoverer of "Miss Mitchell's Comet", 1847

Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Isabella reporting:

Maria Mitchell (1818-1889) is one of those intrepid American women who deserves to be better known today. Not only was she the first American woman to work as a professional astronomer, the first woman member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the first professor at Vassar College, but she also discovered the first "telescopic" comet (a comet too distant to be visible to the naked eye.) Her accomplishments would be significant under any circumstances, but in an era when when few women were permitted either education or careers, they're truly extraordinary.

Maria had the good fortune to be born into a Quaker family on the island of Nantucket, MA. Contrary to most 19th c. conventions, Quakers believed in intellectual equality for women and men, and Maria received the same education as her brothers. Nantucket's whaling wives provided plenty of role-models of independent, self-sufficient women, and the seafaring community was accustomed to being guided by the stars. By the age of twelve, Maria was already aiding her self-taught astronomer father in calculating an annular eclipse. At seventeen, she opened her own school for girls, and at eighteen, she became the first librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum.

But her true passion continued to be stargazing, sweeping the night sky from the roof of her house with her telescope. On an October night in 1847, she discovered Comet 1847 VI, soon known as "Miss Mitchell's Comet." She was rewarded not only with world-wide fame for her discovery, but also received a gold medal as a prize from King Frederick VI of Denmark. The medal's inscription could have been a motto for Maria herself: Not in vain do we watch the setting and the rising of the stars.

Maria's knowledge continued to take her places where no other woman had ventured. She published her findings in scientific journals. She devised an apparatus for taking photographs of the sun. She traveled to Europe to speak and share her discoveries, and she calculated astronomical tables for the U.S. Nautical Almanac Office. She was the first woman member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and one of the first elected to the American Philosophical Society.

Yet Maria was not an isolated scientist. She was an ardent abolitionist and a suffragist, and her wide circle of friends included Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Julia Ward Howe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. She became the first professor of Vassar College in 1865 (and the only faculty member chosen by Matthew Vassar), and later director of the college observatory as well as professor of astronomy. At Vassar she trained and inspired the next generation of astronomers - astronomers who happened to be women, too.

Loretta and I have been long-time admirers of Maria Mitchell. I've visited the grey-shingled Mitchell House (now the home of the Maria Mitchell Association) on Nantucket, filled with memorabilia related to Maria, including an early telescope. Loretta, however, has seen (and posed in front of, right) Maria's most famous  telescope, an 1865 gift from Vassar College, now on display in the Smithsonian's Museum of American History.

Upper right: Maria Mitchell
Left: Maria Mitchell surrounded by the first astronomy class of Vassar College, c. 1860s. Vassar College photograph.
Lower right: Loretta & Maria Mitchell's telescope.
This blog is posted as part of the worldwide celebration of Ada Lovelace Day, October 16, 2012.


Regencyresearcher said...

Didn't caroline Herschel use telescopes to find the comets she discovered? Her brother made excellent telescopes.

Keri@AWH said...

Great post, love it! I've never heard of Maria Mitchell until reading your post today. Quakers were really ahead of their time when it came to women. Happy Ada Lovelace day!

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