Biography Of Maria Mitchell

Maria Mitchell was America's first woman astronomer, andthe first woman to join the American Academy of Arts and Science. Find out more about this intriguing woman.

Maria Mitchell was born on August 1, 1818., the third child of William and Lydia Mitchell. Her home in Nantucket, Massachusetts was simple and plain, as suited a community filled with Quakers.

Her father was an amateur astronomer, a profitable hobby in a whaling town, when ships still steered by the stars, using a sextant. William Mitchell's side business of making sure sextants were properly set arose out of his familiarity with astronomy. He taught all ten of his children the basic principles of astronomy, showing them the constellations, and explaining the mathematics involved in the movement of the skies. But Maria took to it the most easily, and soon became her father's constant companion in his nightly work.

February 19, 1831, William Mitchell showed how much faith he had in his twelve-year old daughter's ability. An annular eclipse, where the fiery ring of the sun would still be visible behind the moon, occurred. Accurately charting the course of the sun would aid astronomers to make the type of small corrections necessary to increase precision in his charts, and thus his business. Part of that charting was correctly timing the instant that eclipse began, the length of duration, and the exact time the sun moved away from the moon. This timing was left to conscientious Maria, marking her first 'official' entry into the world of astronomy. Soon she was given the responsibility of accurately setting the sextants for the whaling ships when her father was out of town.

In an era where education for girls was not valued, Maria Mitchell's parents went against popular opinion. Her father particularly wanted her to be able to receive the type of education in higher mathematics that he lacked. At fourteen, she began attending a female academy run by Cyrus Peirce, who also went against the trends of teaching girls only social skills. Under Peirce's tutelage, Maria learned the higher math unavailable to her elsewhere, and within two years was an instructor at the school.

At seventeen, she put her mathematical skills to use by aiding her father by helping him accurately survey the entire island of Nantucket. With that project completed, she began her own grammar school. At eighteen (1836), she became the first librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum, the library and cultural center for the island. Taking advantage of the library's limited hours (afternoons during the week and Saturday evening) Maria Mitchell self-educated herself, reading all that she could, and spending every clear evening studying the skies.

In 1842 she left the Society of Friends, as the Quakers are formally known. Although she remained deeply concerned with religious matters for the rest of her life, Maria did not feel that she could belong to a religion if she could not agree in all matters of doctrine and dogma. Nor could she not apply the rigors of science to her beliefs. Although her family was dismayed by her choice, they apparently never attempted to change her mind, perhaps knowing it to be firmly made up.

October 1, 1847 marked the monumental triumph of Maria Mitchell's professional life. She excused herself from a family party to track the skies, and saw, with the telescope, a new comet over the North Star. Discovery of a comet that could only be seen with a telescope was still a new phenomena, and one for which the King of Denmark awarded a prestigious prize. Maria Mitchell became not only the first American to win the prize, but the first woman.

She very nearly didn't win the prize. The rules clearly stated that any such discovery must be made immediately. Maria took time to try to verify her discovery with William Bond of the Harvard Observatory. Meanwhile, Father de Vico, at the Vatican Observatory sent in his discovery of the same comet two days later. When the situation, along with letters that documented her precedence in the discovery, was fully explained to the King of Denmark by the president of Harvard and American diplomats in Denmark, he decided to award the medal to Mitchell.

In 1848 she became the first woman to be permitted to join the American Academy of Arts and Scientists, allowing her access to other serious scientists. She would be the only woman allowed to join for over a hundred years.

The King of Denmark award led not only to celebrity, but a position with the well-known American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac in 1849, becoming the first female professional astronomer in the nation. In the next fifteen years, she continued on in that job, as well as traveling throughout the country and Europe.

In the United States, she was distressed at the continuation of slavery in the South, and ceased wearing clothes made of cotton in protest. For the rest of her life, she would continue to dress as simply as ever, but in silk or wool. In Europe, she met such influential astronomers as Herschel, and Americans such as Nathaniel Hawthorne. (He included a reference to her in his Marble Faun.) In Rome, she visited the area where Galileo had stood trial, and the remarkable Vatican Observatory.

In 1865, she made another great step for women in becoming the Astronomy department at the newly created Vassar College. Matthew Vassar started the college to be on an equal with Harvard and Yale-a place where an intelligent young woman could receive the same quality of education as an intelligent man. By joining in with this unique vision, Maria Mitchell was able to have a very real, and continuing influence on the lives of the young women she instructed. In addition to the classroom experience, she introduced her students to such influential women as Louisa May Alcott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Julia Ward Howe. She continued teaching and mentoring until her retirement in 1888 due to poor health. Sadly, she only had only year left to live at that time, dying on June 28, 1889.

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