Maria Mitchell was the third of 10 children born in Nantucket Massachusetts just 48 kms from Cape Cod on August 1, 1818. She was the daughter of a librarian and a teacher with surprisingly modern ideas about educating their daughters.
Mitchell grew up helping her father, an amateur astronomer, with his observations and calculations. By her teenage years, she could operate a chronometer, a sextant, and several kinds of telescope; she could predict the timing of a solar eclipse or figure precise latitude and longitude based on the positions of the stars and planets.
She is most well known for her discovery of a new comet in the night sky over Nantucket on October 1, 1847. Over the next few nights, a handful of other observers around the world spotted the same celestial visitor, but Mitchell had been the first.
She published her findings in January 1848; a month later, she followed up with her calculations describing the length and period of the comet’s orbit.
She received a flurry of recognition and publicity for her discovery, ranging from an 1849 gold medal from the King of Denmark (whose predecessor had, back in 1831, promised a gold medal to anyone who discovered a new comet) and recognition at the first women’s rights conference in Seneca Falls, NY in July 1848.
1865, she became a professor of astronomy and director of the observatory at the newly-founded Vassar College in New York. Some years later, she and a colleague fought and won the battle for equal pay after discovering in 1871 that they were being paid slightly less than half the annual salary of their male counterparts. The “lady professors” refused to back down and were eventually granted equal pay and benefits.
Mitchell taught astronomy and studied the night sky at Vassar College until 1888, about a year before her death.
Today, comet C/1847 T1 is nicknamed Miss Mitchell’s Comet, and the discovery gained Maria Mitchell a place among the stars of astronomy.