Maria Mitchell

Biography of Maria Mitchell

Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818 – June 28, 1889) was an American astronomer, who in 1847, by using a telescope, discovered a comet which as a result became known as the "Miss Mitchell's Comet". She won a gold medal prize for her discovery which was presented to her by King Frederick VII of Denmark. The medal said “Not in vain do we watch the setting and rising of the stars”. Mitchell was the first American woman to work as a professional astronomer.

One of ten children, she was raised in the Quaker religion but later adopted Unitarianism.

Maria Mitchell was born on August 1, 1818, in Nantucket, Massachusetts, and was a first cousin four times removed of Benjamin Franklin. She had nine brothers and sisters. Her parents, William Mitchell and Lydia Coleman Mitchell, were Quakers. Maria Mitchell was born into a community unusual for its time in regard to equality for women. Her parents, like other Quakers, valued education and insisted on giving her the same quality of education that boys received. The Quaker religion taught, among other things, intellectual equality between the sexes. Additionally, Nantucket's importance as a whaling port meant that wives of sailors were left for months and sometimes years to manage affairs while their husbands were at sea, thus fostering an atmosphere of relative independence and equality for the women who called the island home. In spite of this, the women of Nantucket still lacked the right to own property or to vote, among other things.

After attending Elizabeth Gardener's small school in her earliest childhood years, Maria attended the North Grammar school, where William Mitchell was the first principal. Two years following the founding of that school, when Maria was eleven, her father built his own school on Howard Street. There, she was a student and also a teaching assistant to her father. At home, Maria's father taught her astronomy using his personal telescope. At age twelve and a half, she aided her father in calculating the exact moment of annular eclipse.

Her father's school closed, and afterwards she attended Unitarian minister Cyrus Peirce's school for young ladies. Later she worked for Peirce as his teaching assistant before she opened her own school in 1835. One year later, she was offered a job as the first librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum where she worked for eighteen years.

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