On this date in 1847, Maria Mitchell, a 31-year-old Nantucket, MA librarian who was fascinated with astronomy, climbed to her family’s rooftop and scanned the sky with a two-inch reflecting telescope. According to a profile of her on the American Physical Society website, she noticed a small blurry streak, and guessed immediately that it might be a comet. Mitchell carefully recorded the object’s position and continued to observe it to verify her hunch. International astronomical officials initially credited the comet’s discovery to an Italian astronomer, Francesco DiVico, who was the first to report seeing it in Europe, two days after Mitchell did. But when they learned of her report, she got the proper recognition, and the object was designated Comet Mitchell (C/1847 T1) in her honor. (Here’s a picture of it.)
Mitchell gained such international renown that the King of Denmark awarded her a medal. Mitchell, an alumnus of Cyrus Peirce’s School for Young Ladies who was largely self-taught in the sciences, went on to become a professor at Vassar College and America’s first professional woman astronomer. She was also the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. The Lunar crater Mitchell, which you can see in this photo, is named for her.
Mitchell also made an important contribution as an advocate of women in the sciences. As a Mitchell biography by Beatrice Gormley notes, used astronomy to teach her Vassar students not just about the heavens, but to think independently. “Until women throw off this reverence for authority, they will not develop,” she said. “But when they come to truth through their investigations, when doubt leads them to discovery, the truth they get will be theirs.”
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