The First American Woman Astronomer: Maria Mitchell

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Maria Mitchell was the first American woman astronomer, the explorer for whom the comet she discovered was named, a librarian, a naturalist, the first woman professor at Vassar College, the first director of the Vassar Observatory, and above all an educator. The First American Woman Astronomer: Maria Mitchell 1

The Short Life of Maria Mitchell

Maria was born in 1818 on Nantucket (an island in the US state of Massachusetts) into a family of 10 children. Her family belonged to the Quaker sect (a sect that opposed many common Christian beliefs, especially slavery). According to the rules of the sect, both girls and boys had equal opportunities for education.

As a result, she read math and astronomy books throughout her childhood. From the age of 12, she became her father’s biggest assistant. Watching the solar eclipse in 1831 opened the doors to the sky, which she admired. At the age of 14, Maria made calculations to ensure that ships traveling for whaling returned home on a safe route. To do this, she rates the ship’s hours on the chronometers that allow sailors to understand their longitude.

At the age of 16, he becomes a teaching assistant at his old school. She establishes a private school on Traders Lane, but abandons this position to become the first woman to work as a librarian at the Nantucket Atheneum. For 20 years, she continued her personal education at the library, learning Latin, German, celestial mechanics (physics) and advanced mathematics. Meanwhile, her family is forced to move because of her father’s new position.

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Comet 1847-VI

Every night Maria observes the sky through her telescope. One night she discovers a different object than she usually sees. She consults her father to determine if it is a comet. Her father confirms her discovery and wants to make it public. Maria is reluctant to publicize her success because she is a woman. Her father, however, does not embrace this idea.

She writes to her friend William C. Bond (US astronomer, 1789 – 1859), the famous astronomer and director of the Harvard Observatory. The discovery of Comet 1847-VI, informally called “Mrs. Mitchell’s Comet”, was the event that made Maria famous. Her fame also opened the doors of the American Academy of Sciences and Arts in 1848. She was the first woman to be elected to this society, where her father was also a member. She is hired by the US Navy to observe Venus.

Maria always wanted to see Europe and saved money for it. In 1857, she visits London, Liverpool, Paris and Rome to fulfill this dream. She goes to Cambridge to see the observatory. While in England, he stayed with Sir John Herschel, one of the most famous astronomers of his time. After the death of his mother in 1861, he moved with his father to Lynn, Massachusetts.

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Vassar College

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Maria with her students at Vassar College

Matthew Vassar, who founded Vassar College for Women in 1861, was clearly impressed by Maria’s success as a scientist. He saw her as a role model for intelligent and ambitious women. He offered Maria a position as a professor of astronomy at Vassar College. Maria thus becomes the first woman professor hired to teach. (Vassar is based on the principle that women should receive the same education with the same standards as those offered at men’s colleges, and was the first college in America founded for women.)

Maria’s goal is not only to be a teacher. She also aspires to be a good guide for them. In 1869, she took her students to Burlington, Iowa to observe the solar eclipse. In 1878, she took her students to Denver, Colorado to see a second eclipse. She and her students won the battle against social conventions that prohibited girls from going out at night for class work and celestial observations.

In 1873, she travels to Europe for the second time. This time she first stops in Russia. While traveling in Russia, she was surprised to hear that many women were doing scientific work, which was a very rare event in the United States. She also makes a short visit to London, where she visits Glasgow College for Girls. It was a very sad visit for her because in this school only music, dance, drawing and needlework were taught. Latin and mathematics were thought to be ‘heavy’ for girls. The same year she returned home, she helped found the American Association for the Advancement of Women.

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Maria Mitchell’s Work on Slavery and Women’s Rights

Mitchell was also an advocate for women’s rights and the abolitionist movement. Throughout the development of this movement, she worked with notable women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony to fight for equality for women in the professions, reform education and health care. In protest against slavery, she refused to wear clothes made of cotton

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Maria Mitchell is the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848 and becomes a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1850 and the American Philosophical Society in 1869. In 1873, she served as the founding president of the American Association for the Advancement of Women. In 1848 and 1859, she was awarded gold medals by Denmark and San Marino. In 1887 she was awarded an honorary doctorate in Science and Philosophy by Columbia College (now University). Maria fell ill in 1888. Her illness is a source of deep sadness for faculty and students. Maria Mitchell dies on June 28, 1889. She is buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery, Nantucket, next to her mother Lydia and father William.

Ali Esen

Istanbul University, Department of Mathematics. Interested in science and technology.

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