"Did you learn that from a book or did you observe it yourself?"

The discoverer of Comet 1847 VI, Maria Mitchell, was born on August 1, 1818, on the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts, into a Quaker family who believed in universal education for all children.

Her father, William Mitchell, was a teacher and astronomer and encouraged his daughter to follow her natural inclination towards the sciences. Between the years of 1836 and 1856, during the day Maria worked as the first librarian of the Nantucket Athenaeum and used the collection of books there to further her education beyond her basic schooling and what her father taught her. In the evenings she assisted her father in his observation work and it was at his observatory on Nantucket that she first sighted the comet which would be named for her and make her famous. She was awarded a gold medal for her discovery, the first to discover a "telescopic comet", by Frederik VII of Denmark in 1848. The discovery of the comet also led to her becoming the first woman member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848, the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1850, and the American Philosophical Society in 1869.

In 1849 she was appointed a "computer", someone who complied astronomical data, for the United States Nautical Almanac Office, creating tables of Venus for the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac. During the late 1850's she travelled through Europe with Nathaniel Hawthorne and his family meeting with scientists and continuing her astronomical studies.

In 1861 Matthew Vassar founded Vassar College for women and in 1865 Maria became the first professor appointed to the faculty, as a professor of astronomy and Director of the College Observatory. Although Mr. Vassar's College was quite progessive for its day, as was Mr. Vassar, after several years of teaching Maria realized that she was paid less than her male peers and fought for a pay raise, which she received. Although not well known as a suffragist, she did work within the movement, as well as the abolitionist movement and was close friends with Elizabeth Cady Stanton with whom she co-founded the Association for the Advancement of Woman in 1873. Maria was the Association President from 1875 to 1876.

Maria was also a pioneer in the photography of sunspots and she was the first person to discover that sunspots were vertical cavities as opposed to being clouds, which was the prevailing theory at the time. In 1878 she led her students on a cross-country journey to Denver, Colorado, to observe and report on that years total solar eclipse. No small feat for a bunch of women in 1870's America.

Maria Mitchell retired from Vassar, because of declinging health, in 1888 and she died in Lynn, Massachusetts, on June 28, 1889. Honors bestowed upon her after her death include The Maria Mitchell Observatory on Nantucket; induction into the National Women's Hall of Fame; the Liberty ship SS Maria Mitchell; the naming of a crater on the Moon, Mitchell crater, which is part of the Aristoteles crater.


  • Maria Mitchell - Wikipedia
  • Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals Boston, written by Phebe Mitchell Kendall, 1896
  • A lifetime of summers spent on Nantucket at the Maria Mitchell Association