Today, AAAS celebrates the 200th birthday of Maria (Ma-RYE-uh) Mitchell — an accomplished astronomer, educator, and our first woman member.
Born August 1, 1818, Mitchell devoted her life to science and to the education and advancement of women. She was the first American to discover a new comet, promptly named “Miss Mitchell's Comet” (now c/1847 t1), and celebrated all over the world. Mitchell’s achievements not only established her as a first-rate astronomer, it improved the scientific reputation of the United States. In 1848, Mitchell became the first woman to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 1850 she became the first woman member of AAAS. She was elected a AAAS Fellow in 1875, part of the second cohort.
Mitchell was the third of 10 children born into a Quaker family on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. Mitchell’s father, William, was an astronomer and educator, acquainted with some of New England’s leading scientists. Mitchell grew up attending local schools and helping her father maintain ships’ chronographs and develop navigational plans using the stars. On her native Nantucket, the stars were not mere decorations in the night sky, but critical navigational tools for the whalers who drove the island’s marine economy.
Mitchell made her landmark discovery on October 1, 1847, while scanning the heavens with the family telescope. With the help of William Mitchell’s astronomer friends at Harvard College, news of Maria’s discovery spread. She achieved international recognition and was awarded a gold medal by the King of Denmark.
After spending her first 35 years on Nantucket, Mitchell left the island in 1856 to realize her dream of seeing more of the United States and Europe. She traveled for the better part of a decade, visiting a number of important observatories and meeting the leading astronomers of the day. Mitchell was the first professor Matthew Vassar hired for his new college for women, Vassar College, and in 1865 she and her widowed father moved into the well-equipped Vassar Observatory. Before long, Mitchell was hosting lectures and discussions on science, literature, politics, and women’s issues.
Mitchell befriended intellectuals, feminists, writers, artists, and other scientists. At a time when field experience for any undergraduate was a rarity, Mitchell helped her students conduct and publish original research. Defying the conventions of the time, Mitchell took her students, including future astronomers Mary Watson Whitney and Antonia Maury, to view Jupiter and Saturn (her favorite planets) by night. They also traveled across the country to observe important celestial events in the heavens, such as the total solar eclipse of 1869. In 1878, Mitchell’s all-woman team of astronomers traveled to Denver to observe another total solar eclipse. In 1882, having been turned away from government teams, Mitchell and her students remained at Vassar to observe the historic transit of Venus.
Mitchell taught and inspired Vassar students until her retirement in 1888. She died the following year at 70 years old.
Mitchell once said, “We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire; the more we see, the more we are capable of seeing.” Throughout her life, she encouraged many women to see the world and themselves differently. Her legacy has lived on in future generations. The late astronomer Vera Rubin, a 1948 graduate of Vassar College, saw Mitchell as an inspiration, saying, “it never occurred to me I couldn't be an astronomer.” We celebrate AAAS’s first woman member for her discoveries, her courage, and her insistence that science is for everyone.