Maria Mitchell: Achievements & Comet Discovery

Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

Betsy teaches college physics, biology, and engineering and has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering

Maria Mitchell was a famous astronomer and professor who discovered a new comet in 1847. In this lesson, learn all about how she discovered Miss Mitchell's Comet and the extraordinary work she did afterwards.

Miss Mitchell's Comet

On the night of October 1, 1847, the sky was clear over Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. Like she did on many nights, twenty nine year old Maria Mitchell slipped up to the roof of her father's shop to look through her telescope at the night sky. As she scanned the sky, she saw the familiar stars and planets, and then something unusual happened!

Through the telescope, she saw a blurry streak that she had never noticed before. Could it be a comet? Maybe even one that no one had seen before? Mitchell wasn't sure, but she thought it might be. Excitedly, she ran downstairs and dragged her father, also an amateur astronomer, up to the roof to see what she had found. He agreed that it was likely a new comet, but Mitchell wanted to be absolutely sure before going public with her discovery.

She tracked the mysterious object for the next night and saw that it was definitely moving across the sky. This confirmed that it was a comet, and she was pretty certain that no one had discovered this comet before. On October 3, she wrote a letter to Cambridge University announcing the discovery of a new comet, and soon, the comet came to be known as Miss Mitchell's Comet!

Maria Mitchell, discoverer of a new comet and the first female astronomy professor in America
portrait of Maria Mitchell

Scientific Recognition

Following her remarkable discovery, Maria Mitchell received many accolades and became famous throughout the world. A few years before her discovery, the king of Denmark had offered to award a prize and medal to any person who discovered a new comet. After it was confirmed that this was, in fact, a new comet, the king awarded the medal to her, making Mitchell the first woman to ever receive the prize.

A few years later, Maria Mitchell became the first woman ever to be elected as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and helped to found the American Association for the Advancement of Women. Throughout her life, she used her position in the scientific world to advocate for the rights of women, once writing ''Until women throw off reverence for authority they will not develop. When they do this, when they come to truth through their own investigations, when doubts lead them to discovery, the truth they get will be theirs, and their minds will go on unfettered.'' This was something that Maria Mitchell strove to do in her own life and encouraged other women to do as well.

Work at Vassar College

In 1865, Mitchell once again set a precedent when she was hired as a professor of astronomy at Vassar College, making her the first female professor of astronomy in America. At Vassar, she not only taught students, but also served as the director of the Vassar College observatory until she retired in 1888. As a professor at Vassar, she always encouraged her students to find out things for themselves and not trust what someone told them or what they read in a book. She was often known to ask students, ''Did you learn that from a book or did you observe it yourself?'' Her life clearly demonstrated which answer she approved of!

Maria Mitchell instructing a student in the Vassar College Observatory in 1877
Maria Mitchell in the Vassar College Observatory

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account