On this day in 1889 was the death of Maria Mitchell, the first American woman to be a professional astronomer, known for discovering a comet later named “Miss Mitchell’s Comet”. She was born in 1818 in Nantucket, Massachusetts, a distant cousin (first cousin, four times removed) of Benjamin Franklin. Her parents were Quakers, and she and her nine brothers and sisters were raised in a community that placed value on education equally for both boys and girls. Living as they did in a whaling port town, women of the area were also far more independent in general, due to the need to run their homes and manage all their family and business affairs while their sailor husbands were at sea for months.
Maria was educated first at a local school where her father was principal, and then at his own school where she was also a teaching assistant. It was her father that taught her to use his telescope; the two of them enjoyed astronomy together, and it was him at the age of 12 ½ that they calculated the exact moment of an annular eclipse. After her father’s school closed, she attended a school for young ladies and then eventually opened her own school in 1835. Unlike the local segregated public school, Maria controversially opened her own school to all children, regardless of race. A year later she took a job as the Nantucket Atheneum’s first librarian, and she worked there for 20 years, until 1856.
King Frederick VI of Denmark had previously established the awarding of gold medals to anyone who discovered a “telescopic comet”, aka a comet too distant and dim to be scene with only the naked eye. On October 1, 1847. Maria spotted a comet that would allow her claim one of those medals for herself; named “Miss Mitchell’s Comet” or C/1847 T1. There was a brief period of unsurity over who had discovered the comet first, however it was soon resolved that though Francesco de Vico had reported it to European authorities first, he had actually seen it two days after Maria. In 1848, the new King Christian VIII awarded Maria her medal, and she became famous worldwide, especially since only two women astronomers (Caroline Hershel and Maria Margarethe Kirch) had discovered comets before her.
Following her discovery, Maria became the first woman elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1848), Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1850), and one of the first women elected to the American Philosophical Society (1869, along with Mary Somerville and Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz). She went on to work for some time at the U.S. Nautical Almanac Office (calculating tables of positions of Venus), and became professor of astronomy and later Director of the Observatory at Vassar College. It was after several years of teaching there that Maria realized her salary was lower that numerous male professors who were younger and less experienced than her. She protested, insisted on a salary increase… and got it.
Maria was also friends with several well-known suffragists (like Elizabeth Cady Stanton), and was an abolitionist who stopped wearing cotton clothing in protest of slavery and plantations. She also co-founded the American Association for the Advancement of Women. She never married, and eventually retired from Vassar in 1888 to live with her sister Kate and family in Lynn, Massachusetts. She died there in 1889 at the age of 70, but was honored in numerous ways, including the naming of the Maria Mitchell Observatory in Nantucket, the SS Maria Mitchell (a WW2 Liberty ship), and a train on the NY Metro North railroad named The Maria Mitchell Comet. She was also posthumously inducted into the U.S. National Women’s Hall of Fame.