Maria Mitchell: An Eye for Astronomy

In this installment of ‘Profiles in History,’ we meet a pioneer in American astronomy and the first American to discover a new comet. 
Maria Mitchell: An Eye for Astronomy
Maria Mitchell sits (R) in the Vassar College Observatory in June of 1878. (Public Domain)
Dustin Bass
Maria Mitchell grew up with a passion for astronomy, something she received from her father. Her gift for astronomy and mathematics provided her careers in both astronomy and navigation. This dedication to the field of astronomy would literally leave her name among the stars.

A Brilliant Student

When John Augustus Roebling immigrated in 1831 from Prussia to the farming commune in Saxonburg, Pennsylvania, he quickly found that he was no farmer. Bridges were more to his liking, and he soon became one of America’s most prominent and innovative bridge builders. 
Maria Mitchell (1818–1889) grew up on the island of Nantucket in Massachusetts, the daughter of William and Lydia Mitchell, and one of 10 siblings. Raised in a Quaker household, she was provided an education with her brothers and the local boys. It also helped that her father was a teacher. Her father, an amateur astronomer with a passion for studying the stars, left a lasting impression on Mitchell. 
Mitchell proved to be a brilliant student who excelled in her studies, specifically mathematics and astronomy. Her understanding of both subjects made her capable of accurate astronomical calculations. At the age of 12, she helped her father calculate the exact arrival of a solar eclipse. As a young teenager, local whalers trusted her to rate their chronometers, an instrument used for time measurements. This meant she ensured the accuracy of a navigator’s ability to measure longitude while sailing. This no doubt kept her busy as Nantucket was in New England, the world’s whaling capital. 

Following the Stars

While keeping pace with her studies and growing her reputation among local mariners, she kept her eyes on the skies. Her father owned a telescope, something he encouraged all of his children to use. The telescope would become the pathway to Mitchell’s long and stellar career. 
At 17, she opened her own school, but a year later she took a job as the first librarian for the Nantucket Atheneum, which was the Nantucket library. It was a position she would hold for the next 20 years.
 Her skills in navigation and mathematics landed her a job in 1845 with the U.S. Coast Survey, the nation’s first scientific agency, which conducted hydrographic surveys and created nautical charts. Her primary job was to track the planets in the solar system and chart their positions, so that navigators could use the information.
Her librarian duties did not keep her from monitoring the stars and taking notes on the movements within the solar system. As a rather quiet woman, astronomy and her work as a librarian seemed to fit her personality. Her preference for quiet and relative solitude paid major dividends on Oct. 1, 1847.

The First to the Comet

That night, her father hosted a dinner party. Mitchell eventually snuck away from the guests to the house’s rooftop. She began “sweeping” the skies with the family’s telescope. Suddenly, she noticed a blur. The object was not on her astronomical map. She hurriedly informed her father, who wished to spread the news of the discovery. Mitchell, however, pressed him not to say anything until she was certain that she had made a new observation. On Oct. 3, she was certain. Mitchell had discovered a new telescopic—meaning too distant to see with the naked eye—comet, which she named C/1847 T1.
Maria Mitchell owned this telescope, which is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History. (Mark Pellegrini/ <a href="">CC BY-SA 2.5</a>)
Maria Mitchell owned this telescope, which is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History. (Mark Pellegrini/ CC BY-SA 2.5)
Her father sent a letter to Cambridge where his friend and colleague, William Cranch Bond, was the director of the Harvard College Observatory. The scientists at Harvard had discovered the new comet around the same time. Father Francesco de Vico had seen the comet on Oct. 3, but his sighting was two days behind Mitchell’s.
In 1832, Frederick VI, king of Denmark, began giving gold medals to anyone who discovered a new comet. Though the king died in 1839, the tradition continued until 1850. Mitchell was awarded the gold medal by King Christian VIII. Along with being awarded the prestigious medal, the comet was renamed “Miss Mitchell’s Comet.”
Her observation was truly astronomical, as it made her the first American to find a comet. The accomplishment brought fame that she did her best to accommodate.
“It is really amusing to find one’s self lionized in a city where one has visited quietly for years; to see the doors of fashionable mansions open wide to receive you, which never opened before,” she wrote in her diary. “One does enjoy acting the part of greatness for a while! I was tired after three days of it, and glad to take the cars and run away.”

Opened Doors

One of those doors opened the year after her discovery, when the American Academy of Arts and Sciences made her a member. In 1850, she was allowed membership to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The American Philosophical Society also made her a member in 1869.
The Nantucket, Massachusetts, birthplace of Maria Mitchell, astronomer and professor at Vassar College. (Public Domain)
The Nantucket, Massachusetts, birthplace of Maria Mitchell, astronomer and professor at Vassar College. (Public Domain)
Mitchell remained close to her father throughout his life. When her mother died in 1861, Mitchell stayed close to home. In 1865, she was offered a position as professor of astronomy at the new Vassar College in New York. She accepted the position, and her father came with her. The two lived in the first building to be built on the campus, which happened to be the Vassar Observatory. Their bond continued until William died in 1869.

The Astronomy Professor

Mitchell taught her students in much the same way that she had been taught: hands on. One of the questions she would ask her students was “did you learn that from a book or did you observe it yourself?”
The famous astronomer wished for her students to experience the heavens as much as possible. In 1869, she took seven of her Vassar students to Burlington, Iowa, to watch a solar eclipse. Nine years later, she took several students with her to Colorado to experience the same phenomenon.
Mitchell was one of the astronomical pioneers in America, and her dedication to the science influenced many future astronomers. The telescope used by Mitchell and her Vassar students was donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in 1963.
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Dustin Bass is an author and co-host of The Sons of History podcast. He also writes two weekly series for The Epoch Times: Profiles in History and This Week in History.
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