Name

Maria Mitchell

Career

Science

Occupation 1

Astronomer

Occupation 2

Professor

Identifier

Nantucket

Region

NA/New England region

Era

Heroic Age of Sail (1816-1865)

Born

1818

Died

1889

Text

Astronomer and teacher� She exhibited an early fascination with mathematics and learned to assist her father with astronomical observations from the "widow's walk" on their home and later from the top of the Pacific Bank, where her father worked as a cashier. Theirs was a practical interest, established in part by the need of Nantucket whalers for calculators to correct chronometers but also by the excitement of rapidly improving instrumentation and consequent new astronomical discoveries. Mitchell's capacity for precision and persistence contributed first to her national recognition as an astronomer and subsequently to her commitment to education as a means for women to raise their lifetime aspirations�

In the evenings, assisted by a circle and transit on loan from West Point Academy and a four-inch equatorial telescope and other instruments provided by the U.S. Coast Survey (USCS), she and her father made thousands of observations of the stars that improved the determination of time and latitude. Mitchell, again with the cooperation of her father, surveyed Nantucket Island in order to produce a more accurate map of the coastline.

On the night of 1 October 1847, while sweeping the skies as usual, Mitchell observed a comet that was previously unrecorded; she and her father watched it for several days and contacted their friend George Bond of the Harvard College Observatory. This first discovery of a telescopic comet won her a gold medal from the king of Denmark and brought her opportunities within the U.S. scientific and educational community� Mitchell was the only American woman to gain self-supporting scientific employment and international recognition in the 1850s.

[Later,] a trustee of Vassar College asked to meet with her concerning a position at the new women's college being planned in New York state. Like virtually all women of her generation, Mitchell had never had any higher education. She was, however, intrigued by the aspirations of the founder, Matthew Vassar, and followed the debate among administrators and trustees about the appropriateness of women faculty members. When the official offer came, just before the college opened in 1865, Mitchell quickly accepted the opportunity to contribute to the movement for women's education and to utilize the new twelve-inch telescope made by Henry Fit for the Vassar observatory. She and her father moved into the apartment adjoining the campus observatory. Mitchell chafed against the circumstances that held her salary below that of male colleagues and resisted compulsory chapel attendance, but she remained deeply committed to Vassar College and its pioneering efforts for women's education� Her advocacy and influence are fundamental in understanding the significant numbers of women who were accepted as astronomical computers at the end of the century throughout the United States�

She helped draft a national notice for a congress of women and subsequently helped organize the Association for the Advancement of Women, precursor of the General Federation of Women's Clubs. The initial organization sought to raise the aspirations of women by organizing local clubs and providing nationally known speakers on a range of then controversial topics such as higher education for women, temperance, women's exercise and health, and women's potential role in science. Over the next decade Mitchell remained active and attended annual meetings held primarily in northeastern and north central states. She formulated a questionnaire to determine more about those women who were active in science. Somewhat reluctantly she allowed herself to be elected president more than once� Mitchell could also be high-handed. She refused to give in to a local committee that, for example, wanted to bar speakers who advocated woman suffrage� She had embarked on her Vassar career when she was nearly fifty years old, and declining health led her to resign from Vassar in early 1888, after more than twenty years of service�

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