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“Somewhat Beauty and Poetry”: Remembering Maria Mitchell

Star streaks over sandstone formations. Photo by Bruce Dale.

 

Stargazing enthusiasts, if you find yourself outside in the dark this weekend taking a peek at Cassiopeia and the Summer Triangle, remember to think about a pioneering scientist who would share your passion for the night sky.   This week marks the 122nd anniversary of the death of accomplished American astronomer and trailblazer, Maria Mitchell.

Mitchell (her first name is pronounced Ma-RYE-ah), who was born in Nantucket in 1818, began her education in astronomy as a young girl when she and her father would climb to the roof of their house and track the movement of the stars across the nighttime sky.  This childhood passion for science never left her and as she grew up and took on work as a teacher, and then a librarian, she continued to spend her free time in her family’s rooftop observatory.

Then, one night in October of 1847, she spotted something peculiar in the lens of her telescope.  A comet she had never seen before was making its way across the sky.  Mitchell’s father wrote a hasty letter to some astronomer friends in Boston who confirmed it:  no one else had any record of the comet.  The discovery of Comet Mitchell, as it was later named, launched the 29-year-old amateur astronomer into the spotlight, winning her acclaim, recognition in astronomy journals, and even a medal from the King of Denmark.

Her new celebrity also led to an offer for a teaching position from the philanthropist, Matthew Vassar, who was looking for professors to teach at the women’s college he was starting.  Mitchell hesitated.  She had been homeschooled, knew nothing about university life, and was reluctant leave Nantucket to live among strangers in the more cosmopolitan mainland society.  But she accepted and soon became, by all accounts, an engaging and demanding professor.  She rousted her students out of bed in the middle of the night in order to observe a lunar eclipse.  She took girls on a stargazing expedition to Colorado.  When she found that an apple tree on campus was obstructing the view of sky, she ordered it chopped down.  Her unladylike demeanor and unorthodox methods led to friction with some of her colleagues and university administrators.  But her methods seem to have been successful.  In addition to her own scientific contributions to the field of astronomy, 25 of her students went on to become accomplished scientists in their own right.

After her death in 1889, Mitchell’s friends, family members and former students went on to found the Maria Mitchell Association.  The organization is still active today.  In addition to preserving Mitchell’s papers, the MMA supports research and provides educational programs in the natural sciences.  A collection of her published journals and letters has been digitized and is also available online.

Maria Mitchell is one of 21 women astronomers whose lives and accomplishments are chronicled in Mabel Armstrong’s book, Women Astronomers: Reaching For the Stars, part of the NGS Library’s collection on astronomy.  Along with early pioneers in the field, Women Astronomers also highlights rising stars in the field of astronomy and physics such as Emily Levesque, Kris Blindert, Tesla Jeltema, and Jogee Shardha.  Their bios, along with other astronomy resources, can be found on the book’s website.  And for more star-related news and information, check out Nat Geo’s astronomy blog, Breaking Orbit.