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Maria Mitchell

Born: 1-Aug-1818
Birthplace: Nantucket, MA
Died: 28-Jun-1889
Location of death: Lynn, MA
Cause of death: Illness

Gender: Female
Religion: Unitarian
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Astronomer, Activist

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: First American female astronomer

Maria (pronounced ma-RY-ah) Mitchell was the first American woman to earn her living as an astronomer, the first woman elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the first Professor, man or woman, appointed at the newly-founded Vassar College in 1865. As a child in the 1820s she showed a keen interest in the stars, and far out of keeping with the times, her curiosity was encouraged by her father, a devout Quaker and amateur astronomer who believed that studying the natural universe was a fitting and proper way to praise God. By her teen years she was spending any spare moments in the evening hours on the roof of her family's home, gazing at the heavens. It was on that roof, looking through her small telescope on the night of 1 October 1847, that she discovered what became known as Miss Mitchell's Comet.

She later worked as a school teacher and librarian, did mathematical work for the US Office of Coast Survey, and edited the astronomical column at Scientific American. She made astute early observations about sunspots, the surface of Saturn and the composition of its rings, the double nebulae in the Great Bear constellation, and an 1869 solar eclipse, and concluded that color variations between stars were probably caused by their varying chemical compositions. Her mother's side of the family traced its ancestry to Benjamin Franklin. Mitchell herself never married.

Before the American Civil War, she was an outspoken opponent of slavery, and one of many Northerners who boycotted clothes made of Southern cotton. After the war she concentrated her political actions on women's rights, co-founding the Association for the Advancement of Women, and she became that suffragette group's President in 1875.

Father: William Mitchell (astronomer)
Mother: Lydia Coleman Mitchell (d. 1861)
Sister: Phebe Mitchell Kendall

    High School: Cyrus Peirce's School for Young Ladies, Nantucket, MA (1835)
    University: BA Astronomy, Hanover College (1853)
    Professor: Astronomy, Vassar College (1865-88)

    Scientific American
    American Association for the Advancement of Science 1850
    American Association for the Advancement of Women
    American Academy of Arts and Sciences 1848
    American Philosophical Society 1865
    National Women's Hall of Fame
    US Office of Coast Survey

Official Website:

Author of books:
Wonders of the Moon (1873, with Amédé Guillemin and M. G. Mead)

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