Maria Mitchell - Astonomer: 1818 1889
Maria Mitchell was born in 1818, in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Her parents were Quakers so she was born into a community which believed in equality for women. Her parents, like other Quakers, valued education and insisted on giving her the same quality of education that boys received. Maria's father founded a school and she became a teaching assistants. At home, her father taught her astronomy using his personal telescope. At age twelve and a half, she aided her father in calculating the exact moment of an annular eclipse.
She opened her own school in 1835. One year later, she was offered a job as the first librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum.
Using a telescope, she discovered the "Miss Mitchell's Comet" (Comet 1847 VI) in the autumn of 1847. Some years previously, King Frederick VI of Denmark had established gold medal prizes to each discoverer of a "telescopic comet" (too faint to be seen with the naked eye). The prize was to be awarded to the "first discoverer" of each such comet (note that comets are often independently discovered by more than one person). She duly won one of these prizes, and this gave her worldwide fame.
She became the first woman member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848 and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1850. She later worked at the U.S. Nautical Almanac Office, calculating tables of positions of Venus, and traveled in Europe with Nathaniel Hawthorne and his family.
She became professor of astronomy at Vassar College in 1865, the first person (male or female) appointed to the faculty. She was also named as Director of the Vassar College Observatory. After teaching there for some time, she learned that despite her reputation and experience, her salary was less than that of many younger male professors. She insisted on a salary increase, and got it. She was shown the observatories in Greenwich, Cambridge, and, after some difficulty with papal authorities who were reluctant to allow a woman to enter, the Vatican Observatory. Of the latter visit she later commented, "I did not know that my heretic feet must not enter the sanctuary, that my woman's robe must not brush the seats of learning."
She was friends with various suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and co-founded the American Association for the Advancement of Women. In 1875 she was elected president of the Association. Mitchell died in 1889.
The Maria Mitchell Observatory in Nantucket is named in her honor. The Observatory is part of the Maria Mitchell Association in Nantucket, which aims to preserve the sciences on the Island. It operates a Natural History Museum, Maria Mitchell's Home Museum, and the Science Library as well as the Observatory. She was also posthumously inducted into the U.S. National Women's Hall of Fame. She was the namesake of a World War II Liberty ship, the SS Maria Mitchell. The crater Mitchell on the Moon is named after her. In 1902, the Maria Mitchell Association was founded in her memory.
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