Born on the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts to a Quaker family, Maria Mitchell had the benefit of a support system that encouraged her education and pursuits in the sciences. Her father, an amateur astronomer, was very involved with her studies and with his help she would calculate the position of their home by observing a solar eclipse when she was 12.
At the age of 14 she was being asked to do vital navigational computations for long whaling journeys. At 18 she was hired as the first librarian for the Nantucket Athenaeum. Continuing to make observations of the night sky with her father she spotted a small blurry object that didn’t appear on her charts. On October 1, 1847 she discovered a comet–which would become known as Ms. Mitchell’s comet. The discovery put her on a worldwide stage as she was only the third woman to discover a comet and was awarded a gold medal for her work by the King of Denmark.
In 1865 Mitchell was the first person to be hired as a member of the faculty at Vassar College when she was hired as a professor of astronomy and also appointed the director of the school’s observatory. Teaching at the school for a few years she discovered that although she had more experience and world renown she was paid less than new younger male professors–a point she protested, demanding and receiving equal pay.
While being a teacher took time away from her own research Mitchell loved the role and was known for keeping her students up past their curfew so they could make astronomical observations with her. Known for expecting much from her students she was also a favorite professor of many as she treated her students as equals and stated to her class that “We are women studying together.”
Mitchell taught at Vassar until her health forced her into retirement in 1888 and she passed away a year later. Three years later her friends, family, and former pupils created the Maria Mitchell Association to commemorate her life and interests in astronomy and natural sciences.
Written by Angela Goad