Maria Mitchell: Biography, Facts & Quotes

Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

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

Maria Mitchell is remembered as the first woman to become a professional astronomer and astronomy professor in America. She also discovered a famous comet, known as Miss Mitchell's Comet. In this lesson, learn all about her extraordinary life!

Miss Mitchell's Comet

On the night of October 1, 1847, a party was in full swing at the house of William and Lydia Mitchell on the tiny island of Nantucket off the coast of Massachusetts. Their 29-year-old daughter Maria slipped out of the party early and headed up to the roof to pursue her favorite pastime, looking at the night sky with her telescope. She did this nearly every clear night, but on this particular night, something was different. She saw what looked like a small blurry streak that she had never noticed before. She thought it might be a comet, so she brought her father up to the roof to see it, too. He agreed that it was probably a comet, one nobody had ever seen before!

Maria tracked the comet for several nights and saw it was moving across the sky, confirming her original suspicions. On October 3, Maria Mitchell and her father wrote a letter to Cambridge University announcing her discovery. At that time, only a few comets had ever been found, and the King of Denmark had offered to award a medal to anybody who discovered a new comet. After it was confirmed that Mitchell was the first person to find this new comet, she received the medal, and the comet soon came to be known as Miss Mitchell's Comet. Mitchell would go on to become the first woman to work as an astronomer and astronomy professor in America and was famous throughout the worldwide scientific community.

A portrait of Maria Mitchell, the first female American professional astronomer, with her telescope
Maria Mitchell

Early Life and Education

Born in 1818 on Nantucket, Maria Mitchell was interested in astronomy from an early age. Her family were Quakers, and like many other Quakers, her parents believed that girls were entitled to the same education as boys. This attitude was rare at the time, but it had a profound impact on young Maria Mitchell, who always highly valued education. Later in life, she would say, ''We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire; the more we see, the more we are capable of seeing.''

As a child, Maria was a student at North Grammar School in Nantucket where her father was the principal. When Maria was 11, her dad left North Grammar School to open his own school, where Maria was both a student and his assistant, helping to instruct the younger students. At home, her father taught her about astronomy. They bought a telescope, and she and her father could be found on the roof of her family's house scanning the night sky almost every night it was clear.

After her father closed his school, she attended the famous minister Cyrus Pierce's School for Young Ladies and continued to work there as a teaching assistant for several years after her graduation. In 1835, she left to start her own school. At this new school, she decided to admit children of all races to her school, a very controversial move in the early 1800s. This would not be the last time Maria Mitchell would take such a controversial position. Throughout her life, Mitchell spoke out against discrimination toward women and people of color and is known for this work almost as much as her contributions to astronomy.

Work for Women's Rights

In her personal and professional life, Maria Mitchell was a trailblazer for women's rights. In 1856, she was traveling in Italy and decided to visit the Vatican observatory. When she arrived there, she was told that women were not permitted to go inside the observatory. This was not acceptable to her, so she spent two weeks getting the U.S. legation to the Papal States to pressure the Vatican into granting her admittance. Finally, officials gave in, and she became the first woman ever to step inside the observatory!

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