Maria Mitchell was the first American woman to work as a professional astronomer. She was also a respected educator.
Maria Mitchell became a popular figure after she discovered a comet in 1847. But she was most influential as the first woman to work as a professional astronomer in the United States and as a teacher who launched the scientific careers of many other women. Mitchell was an energetic spokesperson for women's causes; she particularly stressed the idea that women had the necessary intelligence and observational abilities to pursue scientific studies and careers.
Father's love of astronomy
Mitchell was born in Nantucket, Massachusetts, on August 1, 1818. She was the third of the ten children of William and Lydia (Coleman) Mitchell, descendants of Quakers who had emigrated from England. Mitchell came by her love of learning naturally. Since her mother worked in libraries, she became an avid reader. Her father, a teacher and banker, was also an accomplished amateur astronomer, providing Maria early exposure to that field. The island of Nantucket was an important whaling center, and William Mitchell was frequently hired by sailors to check the accuracy of their ships' chronometers--a timekeeping tool--by comparing them to observations of the stars. As Mitchell matured, she began to assist her father in his astronomy work. Another important influence on the future astronomer was the community of Nantucket itself, an environment where people knew and appreciated natural phenomena. She once stated that her stargazing practices were not unusual on the island: "In Nantucket people quite generally are in the habit of observing the heavens, and a sextant [a tool for measuring the angle or altitude of celestial bodies] will be found in almost every home."
An unusual teaching style
Mitchell attended a local girls' school for a while before entering a school run by her father, where students were encouraged to make all types of observations of the natural world. She then attended a school run by a man named Cyrus Pierce, completing her education at the age of 16 and staying on to teach for a time. At the age of seventeen she opened her own school, beginning of a lifelong interest in education. She was unconventional in her approach to teaching, sometimes starting the school day before dawn to allow students to see certain birds, or extending class time into the night to encourage astronomical observations.
Assists father in observations
In 1836, she became a librarian at the Nantucket Atheneum, a post she held for 20 years. Since the library was open only in the afternoons and Saturday evenings, she was able to spend a great deal of time studying a wide range of books and observing the sky. Some of her reading included French authors, books on mathematics, and Bodwitch's Practical Navigator. In the evenings, she and her father would take notes on the objects in the night sky from a small observatory William Mitchell had constructed on the roof of the bank where he had become the principal officer. Their research was so detailed and accurate that it eventually drew the attention of a number of astronomers, including the director of the Harvard Observatory and the superintendent of the United States Coast Survey. The Mitchells' observatory was named a station of the Coast Survey, for which they provided information on movements and locations of the stars and the Moon.
Discovers new comet
On October 1, 1847, Mitchell discovered a comet. Her father reported her finding, but because two other scientists in Europe also had claimed to have found it, it took nearly a year to determine that Mitchell had actually spotted the comet first. Once designated the discoverer of the comet, Mitchell quickly became known around the world for her accomplishment. She was awarded a gold medal from the king of Denmark, and in 1848 she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the first woman to be so honored. Later in life she would break another barrier in academic organizations, becoming, in 1869, the first woman named to the American Philosophical Society. She was also the subject of numerous magazine articles and began correspondences and friendships with a number of notable people in the sciences, including Joseph Henry, a physicist and director of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Works as professional astronomer
Mitchell's recognized skill as a scientist brought her other opportunities as well. In 1849, she became an analyst for the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac, a publication of astronomical tables that was primarily used for navigation by sailors. Holding this paid position for about 19 years, Mitchell helped to make accurate calculations of time, latitude, and longitude. She was named to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1850.
Becomes influential professor
Mitchell was given the opportunity to travel to Europe in 1857 as the chaperon for the daughter of a wealthy Chicago businessman. In Europe, she visited a number of observatories and met such famous individuals as American author Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), astronomers John Herschel (1738-1822) and Mary Somerville (1780-1872), and the philosopher and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859).
In 1865, Mitchell became professor of astronomy and director of the observatory at Vassar College, a newly founded women's college in New York. As she had done during her early years as an educator, Mitchell ignored the usual lecture method of instruction, stressing small classes and individual attention. At Vassar's observatory, Mitchell continued her astronomical research, studying and photographing sunspots, analyzing changes on the surface of Jupiter and Saturn, and investigating binary stars and nebulae (large cloudy bodies of dust in space). Mitchell's students worked by her side in her research, and she would take them on trips across the country to make observations on astronomical events such as eclipses. A number of her students went on to become noted astronomers themselves.
Mitchell's lasting contributions to the field of astronomy are probably more in her work as an observer and teacher than as a theoretical astronomer. As an observer, she was especially interested in the Sun, witnessing several total eclipses, and watching sunspots to try to understand their origin and changes. She believed they are rotating, gaseous storms on the solar surface. She assessed Jupiter's clouds very much as modern scientists do, arguing that they are not simply atmospheric phenomena, but part of the planet itself. She guessed that these clouds are pushing upward and moving at different rates. Like Mitchell, astronomers today believe Jupiter is a gaseous planet without a solid surface. Regarding Saturn, her claim that the rings and the planet are composed of different material anticipated modern findings.
Promotes women in science
Mitchell became a leading advocate of women's rights, arguing that women were suited for mathematics and other sciences. She also strongly believed that scientific methods could be applied to solve social problems, an interest that led her to be named the vice president of the American Social Science Association in 1873. She toured Europe again that year and helped found the Association for the Advancement of Women, a moderate feminist group that she served as president from 1875 to 1876 and as chair of the science committee until her death.
Observatory built in her honor
Mitchell taught at Vassar for twenty-three years, retiring in 1888. Although she was offered a permanent residence at the school's observatory, Mitchell returned to a family home in Lynn, Massachusetts, where she died in 1889. She was buried in a cemetery near the place of her birth on Nantucket. In Nantucket in 1902, the Maria Mitchell Association was founded by a group of women to honor Mitchell's memory and to encourage further scientific research by women. The association, which occupies the house where Mitchell was born, built an observatory next to the Mitchell House in 1908; it has since become a center for astronomical research. Mitchell was also remembered for her pioneering work as America's first female professional astronomer with a bust in the New York University Hall of Fame.
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