August 1, 1818 – June 28, 1889
Maria Mitchell was an American astronomer, born on Nantucket island, off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Her father, William Mitchell, taught both his sons and daughters astronomy and celestial navigation and her mother, Lydia Coleman, encouraged her daughters to learn occupations and seek independence.
Maria Mitchell, the first woman astronomer in the United States, discovered a comet which was referred to as "Miss Mitchell's Comet".
October 1, 1847, was a clear night. Maria Mitchell was at her telescope on the roof of her parent’s house observing a star. She had slipped away from the party going on downstairs to sweep the heavens. As she focused on one particular star it occurred to her that this fuzzy star was actually a comet. She returned to the parlor to tell her father what she had found. Mr. Mitchell ran upstairs to the telescope and located the fuzzy object. He immediately declared it to be a comet. The next day Mr. Mitchell wrote to Professor Bond, at Cambridge, announcing the discovery. Discovering comets wasn’t unusual during this time but the only other woman to have discovered one was Caroline Herschel. The comet was named 1847 VI (modern designation is C/1847 T1) but it became known as “Miss Mitchell’s Comet.”
In 1832 King Frederick VI of Denmark offered a gold medal prize to each person who “first” discovered a comet using a telescope. There was some initial confusion as Francesco de Vico also discovered this comet two days after Miss Mitchell but had reported it first. The confusion was resolved and Miss Mitchell was awarded the prize and the worldwide fame that came along with it.
She also studied sunspots, planets and nebulae.
Mitchell was the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society and the first woman Professor of Astronomy in the United States (at Vassar College). In 1875 Mitchell was elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Women where she promoted higher education and suffrage for women. After her death, the Maria Mitchell Astronomical Society was created in her honor.
In 1902, the Maria Mitchell Association (MMA) was founded. It brings the legacy of the Nantucket astronomer to new generations. In 1905 Mitchell was elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. The house on Nantucket where Maria was born is open to the public during the summer.
The Lunar crater Mitchell is named in her honor.