The Woman Who Was a Comet
Maria (Ma-RYE’-ah) MItchell got her own Google Doodle on August 1, 2003, the one-hundred-and ninety-fifth anniversary of her birth. The graphic shows her sitting on a carpet on a nighttime roof, looking through a telescope at the stars. Maria started peering through a telescope, helping her father calculate the time of a solar eclipse or observing stars for the U.S. Coast Guard, when she was twelve, in Nantucket, Massachusetts in 1830. Her father worked at a bank, with living quarters. He built a telescope on the roof. It is upon that roof that Maria sits.
Maria came from a Quaker family with nine sisters and brothers. Quaker families valued education for all children, including girls, and advocated equality for women (very much against the trend of the times). Maria went through local schools, including her father’s, where she was a teaching assistant, and started her own school when she was seventeen. She followed the legacy of independent Nantucket women, who handled life’s business while their men folk were away at sea for months or years.
In her hometown, Maria plotted the movements of stars and planets and rated chronometers (devices that determined longitude by celestial navigation) for Nantucket whaling ships.
When she was eighteen, she was hired as the Nantucket Antheneum’s first librarian. During her twenty years on the job, Maria continued her observations and self-study of astronomy.
While still in her twenties, Maria discovered through a two-inch telescope a new, blurry object in the sky. She knew every speck in that night sky. She presumed it was a star, but the next night, the “star” had moved. Maria charted the orbit of what she felt sure was a comet. Indeed! C/1847 T1 was also designated, “Miss Mitchell’s Comet.” She was the second woman in history to discover a comet and the first woman to win a gold medal from the King of Denmark, who offered a prize for the discovery and identification of telescopic comets (those invisible to the eye). “Not in vain do we watch the setting and rising of the stars,” read the inscription on her medal.
In the wake of her fame as that woman astronomer who found her own comet, Maria left her job at the Atheneum and traveled through Europe, accompanying Nathaniel Hawthorne and his family, and visiting astronomers and observatories.
At age thirty-one, she joined the U.S. Nautical Almanac Office, later part of the U.S. Naval Observatory, to compute the positions of planet Venus.
When Matthew Vassar founded Vassar College in 1865, as the only college for women in the U.S., he personally invited Maria to join the faculty. She became the college’s first professor. She established the Astronomy Department and became director of the College Observatory.
Maria and her students at Vassar kept the first daily photographic records of sun spot activity, and investigated Maria’s hypothesis that sun spots were whirling, vertical cavities, rather than clouds, on the sun’s surface. They documented Venus traversing the Sun, a rare planetary alignment, occurring only eight times in four hundred years. They explored and researched the surfaces of Jupiter and Saturn, using apparatus designed by Maria. They studied comets, nebulae, double stars, and solar eclipses. Maria and her students witnessed a total solar eclipse in Burlington, Iowa in 1869 and again in Denver, Colorado in 1878. Maria taught at Vassar for twenty-three years. She was forced to retire by illness in 1888.
Maria was the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the only woman elected for nearly a hundred years afterward. She was elected as the first woman to the Association for the Advancement of Science. She founded the Association for the Advancement of Women, and chaired its Committee on Women’s Work in Science. She was one of the first women elected to the American Philosophical Society, and was inducted into the U.S. National Women’s Hall of Fame.
An asteroid,“1455 Mitchella,” discovered in 1937, was named after Maria Mitchell. A small crater on the north end of the Moon’s Caucasus Mountain range is named “Mitchell.” Nantucket, Maria’s hometown, opened its Maria Mitchell Observatory in 1908.
Looking at the smile on Maria Mitchell’s face on her Google Doodle, it would seem that peering through the eyepiece of a telescope was the sole focus of her intellectual and creative energy. But she spent her life educating and empowering women.
“No woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be?” Maria said.
To read from her letters and journals about a woman’s place in science and the world, go to https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/08/22/maria-mitchell-education-women-in-science/
For information about Maria Mitchell, go to www.mariamitchell.org