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  • 7/31/2004

Maria Mitchell

(August 01, 1818 _

June 28, 1889)

Maria Mitchell, the first person, male or female, appointed to the Vassar faculty (1865), was arguably the most famous American scientist of the 19th century. Born inNantucket, Massachusetts, in 1818, she became interested in astronomy through her father, William Mitchell, and assisted him in his observatory. In the late 1830s she was appointed librarian at the Nantucket Athenaeum, using its collection to educate herself while she worked with her father in the evenings. In 1847 she discovered a new comet, named for her -- she was the first person to record a comet sighting -- and was subsequently awarded a gold medal by the King of Denmark.   She was the first woman appointed to the Academy of Arts and Sciences (1848)S¹the first woman named to the Association for the Advancement of Science (1850)S¹the first woman to become an astronomy professor in the U.S. (1865)S¹.and the first woman elected to the American Philosophical Society (1869). 

Mitchell was a marvelous teacher whose students adored her because she held them to a very high standard of intellectual achievement (despite the fact that they were "only" women!) and because she believed in them. Mitchell is famous for asking generation after generation of Vassar students: "Did you learn that from a book or did you observe it yourself?"

What it meant for Maria Mitchell and her students in 1878 was a journey across country to see the total solar eclipse for them. Mitchell, her sister (Mrs. Phebe Kendall), and four Vassar graduates traveled over 2,000 miles by train in the heat of July, wrangled with stationmasters over lost luggage, pitched their tents on a hill outside Denver, Colorado, and pointed their telescopes to the center of the solar system. All that-to witness an event that would last exactly two minutes and 40 seconds.

1. Rooftop Astronomer, by Stephanie Sanmartino McPherson, Carolrhoda Books, Inc., 1990.

2. American Women’s History, by Doris Weatherford, Prentice Hall General Reference, 1994.

3. The Book of Women’s Firsts: Breakthrough Achievements of Almost 1,000 American Women, by Phyllis J. Read and Bernard L. Witlieb, Random House, 1992.

4. Women of Science: Righting the Record, edited by G. Kass-Simon and Patricia Farnes, Indiana University Press, 1993.

5. Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals, edited by Phebe Mitchell Kendall, Lee and Shepard, 1896.

6. Sweeper in the Sky: The Life of Maria Mitchell, by Helen Wright, College Avenue Press, 1997.

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