Maria Mitchell (1818-1889)

Maria Mitchell
Maria Mitchell with her telescope, 1847
Maria Mitchell Association

Maria Mitchell once said, “We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but is somewhat beauty and poetry.”

Maria Mitchell, the first acknowledged female astronomer in the United States, was born August 1, 1818 on Nantucket, Massachusetts to William and Lydia Mitchell. Maria was the third child of a Quaker family with ten children and received her education at Cyrus Peirce’s School for Young Ladies. Her dedicated father, William Mitchell, contributed much to Maria’s education in astronomy, as he was an astronomer and teacher himself. A strong believer of equality for all, Maria’s father deeply encouraged his daughter to receive the same education as boys.

She attended the school at which her father was the master, where she developed a love for nature. She then spent a year with the school presided over by Cyrus Peirce, but left in 1835 at the age of 17 to open her own school to train girls in science and math.

In 1836, Maria went to work as the librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum. Over the next twenty years, she further developed her passion for knowledge by reading as many books as she could when the library was closed. While she spent her days reading, she spent her nights observing the sky with her father. William had built an observatory on top of the nearby Pacific Bank, where he was the principal officer, and this served as a catalyst for her achievements in astronomy.

On October 1, 1847, at the age of 29, Maria Mitchell discovered a comet.  Not only was this a first in American science, she used a mere two-inch telescope, which illustrates her true skill as an astronomer. After some controversy with an Italian man who claimed the discovery, she was awarded the international medal for this achievement. The comet was named "Miss Mitchell's Comet" and was featured in Elias Loomis’ The Recent Progress of Astronomy. As a result, she became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848.   Just 30 at the time, she would be the only woman thus recognized for almost a century into the future.

Later elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Philosophical Society (which still is extant in Philadelphia), Mitchell also probably was the first woman employed in a professional capacity by the federal government.  Although women had been hired as cooks, laundresses, etc., her 1849 employment appears to be the first case of a woman earning an annual salary for work based on knowledge of an academic field.  The U.S. Coastal Survey paid her $300 a year as a celestial observer.  Much of the project’s purpose was to develop the science of weather forecasting, and it involved computing distances.  She and others who did this were called “computers.”

Boston feminists were extremely proud of her achievements.  It was botanist Elizabeth Agassiz who persuaded her husband to nominate Mitchell for membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, while innovative educator and publisher Elizabeth Peabody led wealthier women in purchasing a new telescope for her.  

A decade after she became famous with her discovery, Mitchell was able to spend a year in several countries of Europe.  She met with other astronomers, including Sir John Herschel, whose aunt, German-born Caroline Herschel, had been a pioneering astronomer prior to her 1848 death.  Mitchell also visited Scotland’s Mary Somerville, who published The Mechanisms of the Heavens in 1829 and went on to innovative work on ultraviolet rays and molecular structure.

With an extreme passion for science, Maria Mitchell continued her pursuit in the scientific field through the Civil War, when she also was involved in the anti-slavery movement. A strong believer in freedom for all, she refused to wear cotton grown by slaves in the South.

The Civil War transformed the roles of American women, and many eastern states that had not provided colleges for women began to do so.  One of the most prestigious was Vasser College, which was founded in Poughkeepsie, New York, by Matthew Vassar in 1865.  He persuaded Mitchell to join its faculty, where she was the only woman.  There she had access to a twelve-inch telescope, the third largest in the United States, and began to specialize in the surfaces of Jupiter and Saturn.  

Equally important, she refused to enforce the petty rules of female behavior that were expected in this place and time.  The Vasser faculty respected Mitchell, but they initially expected her to teach astronomy – while insisting that the college’s female students were not allowed to go outside at night!

A sensible person who distained Victorian rigidity, Mitchell also was a leader in the formation of the American Association for the Advancement of Women (AAW), which evolved into today’s American Association of University Women.  She served as AAW’s 1873 president and also was elected vice president of one of the few mixed-gender professional associations of the era, the pioneer American Social Science Association.  Her interest in this “soft” science, as opposed to the “hard” science of astronomy, shows what a well-rounded person Mitchell was.

Always a powerful advocate of women’s potential, she became increasingly feminist as she aged.  Beyond that, she questioned the era’s religiosity, and when Vasser insisted that she attend chapel, made a point of sitting at the far back, where she could ignore the preacher and “think of something pleasant.”  She even gave up her membership in the Society of Friends (Quakers).

Maria Mitchell had known of Nantucket-born Quaker and feminist Lucretia Mott all of her life, and she later befriended other women’s rights leaders such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, and Antoinette Brown Blackwell.  When the nation celebrated its first centennial in 1876, she chaired the Women’s Congress held in Philadelphia.  She also was an exceptionally good teacher, and some of her female students went on to achievement in astronomy.

She retired from Vassar in 1888, but continued her research in Lynn, Massachusetts, where her sister lived.  She passed away on June 28, 1889 of a brain disease, but not before proving women’s potential in science. After her death, her friends and supporters founded the Maria Mitchell Association on Nantucket in 1902; they preserved her home, which is open to visitors. 

Maria Mitchell was elected to the Hall of Fame of Great Americans at New York University when it began in 1905, and in 1994, she was elected to the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York.  Besides being active in the political and scientific realms, she was a true founder of modern science.  Later astronomers honored her by naming a crater of the moon for Maria Mitchell.

Taken from Young and Brave: Girls Changing History

Works Cited:

  • Baker, Rachel. American’s First Woman Astronomer, Maria Mitchell. New York: J. Messner, 1960.
  • Bergland, Renee. Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science. Boston: Beacon Press, 2008.
  • Mitchell, Henry. Biographical Notice of Maria Mitchell. 1889.
  • Wright, Helen. Sweeper in the Sky; The Life of Maria Mitchell. New York: Macmillan Co., 1949.
  • Wright, Helen. “Maria Mitchell” in Notable American Women, vol 2, 554-56.