Part of the American History & Genealogy Project

Maria Mitchell 1818 ~ 1889


Maria Mitchell

Miss Mitchell was born on the island of Nantucket; August 1, 1818 and was one of ten children, her parents, William and Lydia Mitchell, living in one of the simple homes of this quaint New England spot. Her father had been a school teacher, her mother, Lydia Coleman, was a descendant of Benjamin Franklin, whose parents were Quakers. She was one of the pupils in her father's school, and by him led into the great love of nature which opened up for her the opportunity for her great talents, and to this we are indebted for what she has given to astronomy.

He gave Maria the same education which he gave his boys, even the drill in navigation. At sixteen she left the public school, and for a year attended a private school, but being deeply interested in her father's studies, and the study of mathematics, at seventeen she became his helper in the work which he was doing for the United States Government in the Coast Survey. This brought to their home Professor Agassiz, Bache and other noted men. Mr. Mitchell delivered lectures before a Boston society, of which Daniel Webster was president, but scientific study and work at that time brought little money to the family coffers.

One sister was teaching for the munificent sum of three hundred dollars a year. Maria felt she must do her part toward adding to the family income, so accepted a position as librarian of the Nantucket library, her salary for the first year being sixty dollars, and seventy-five for the second, and for twenty years she occupied this position, her salary never exceeding one hundred dollars a year. This gave her great opportunity for study, which no doubt reconciled her to the poor pay.

On a night in October, 1847, while gazing through the telescope, as was her usual custom for the love of the study, she saw what she believed to be an unknown comet. She told her father, and he at once wrote to Professor William C Bond, Director of the Observatory at Cambridge, notifying him of the fact, merely asking a letter of acknowledgment in order to please Maria.

It was promptly acknowledged that she had made a new discovery, and Frederick VI, King of Denmark, having six years before offered a gold medal to whoever should discover a telescopic comet, awarded this medal to Miss Mitchell, the American Minister presenting her claims at the Danish Court. She was soon gratified by seeing her discovery referred to in scientific journals as "Miss Mitchell's comet." She assisted in compiling the American Nautical Almanac, and wrote for scientific periodicals, but she could not content herself with the small opportunities afforded her in this New England village.

In 1857 she went abroad to see the observatories of Europe. The learned men of Great Britain welcomed her. She was entertained by Sir John Herschel, and Lady Herschel, Alexander Von Humbolt, Professor Adams, of Cambridge, Sir George Airy, the astronomer royal of England, who wrote a letter of introduction for her to Leverrier of Paris. Later she visited Florence, Rome, Venice, Vienna, and Berlin, where she met Encke. After a year of such triumphs she returned to Nantucket. In 1860 her mother died and the family removed to Lynn to be nearer Boston, where she could pursue her work under better conditions.

Miss Mitchell received at this time five hundred dollars a year from the government for her computations. About this time Matthew Vassar was founding and equipping the woman's college that now bears his name.

 After the observatory of this institution was completed there was but one person mentioned or desired by the patrons and students to be placed in charge, and this was Maria Mitchell. Miss Mitchell moved to the college and made it her home.

In 1868, in the great meteoric shower she and her pupils recorded the details of four thousand meteors and gave valuable data of their height above the earth. She gave valuable observations on the transit of Venus, has written on the satellites of Saturn, and on the satellites of Jupiter.

She died on June 28, 1889, and was buried in the little island village, where most of her life had been passed.

Women of America

Source: The Part Taken by Women in American History, By Mrs. John A. Logan, Published by The Perry-Nalle Publishing Company, Wilmington, Delaware, 1912.


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