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Maria Mitchell (1818–1889)

Portrait of Maria Mitchell. Albumen print, c1875-1885. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute.

Maria Mitchell was an astronomer, feminist, and professor at Vassar College. Largely an autodidact, she became famous in 1847 when she discovered a comet, and in 1848 she became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In her later life she devoted much of her time to the advancement of women.

Maria Mitchell was born on the Massachusetts island of Nantucket on August 1, 1818. During Mitchell's childhood, Nantucket was a major whaling port, and one of her father's jobs (he was also a banker and schoolteacher) was making sure that ships' chronometers were working properly.

He directed his daughter's early education, and Mitchell spent time at her father's side in his observatory. In 1836 she was appointed the librarian of the Nantucket Athenaeum, a post she held for 20 years. It was there that she was more broadly educated, since she spent most of the days reading undisturbed. Her father meanwhile was gaining a reputation among leading astronomers as an expert, and they observed the night sky together. In October 1847 Mitchell discovered a comet, and became world-famous overnight. In 1848 she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was not only the first woman so elected, but the only one until 1943. Her discovery allowed her to join the ranks of leading American scientists, and during a trip in the late 1850s she exchanged ideas with prominent European naturalists. After her mother's death in 1861, she and her father moved to Lynn, Massachusetts, to live with a married sister.

In 1865 Mitchell moved with her father to Poughkeepsie to be among the first professors at Vassar College. Matthew Vassar promised her an observatory outfitted with a 12-inch telescope, then the third largest in the country. At Vassar, Mitchell was not only a famous scientist but a beloved teacher.

She encouraged self-reliance, scientific observation, and a distrust of authority ("We cannot accept anything as granted beyond the first mathematical formulae. Question everything else"). Her research into solar and planetary astronomy continued. In 1873, Mitchell co-founded the Association for the Advancement of Women, a moderate feminist organization that gathered professional women at annual congresses, serving as president in 1875 and 1876 and chairing its science committee. In that latter role she lectured on the importance of recognizing and encouraging women's scientific skills.

In 1888 at the age of 70, with her health failing, she returned to Lynn, and she died the following year of a brain disease.

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