Maria Mitchell (1818 – 1889)
Young Maria Mitchell learned to observe the stars from her father, who used stellar observations to check the accuracy of chronometers for Nantucket, Massachusetts, whalers and taught his children to use a sextant and reflecting telescope. When Mitchell was 12, she helped her father record the time of an eclipse. And at 17, she had already begun her own school for girls, teaching them science and math. But Mitchell rocketed to the forefront of American astronomy in 1847 when she spotted a blurry streak—a comet—through her telescope. She was honored around the world, earning a medal from the king of Denmark, and became the first woman to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1857 Mitchell traveled to Europe, where she visited observatories and met with intellectuals, including Mary Somerville. Mitchell would write: “I could not help but admire [her] as a woman. The ascent of the steep and rugged path of science has not unfitted her for the drawing room circle; the hours of devotion to close study have not been incompatible with the duties of wife and mother.” Mitchell became the first female astronomy professor in the United States, when she was hired by Vassar College in 1865. There she continued her observations, particularly those of the Sun, traveling up to 2,000 miles to witness an eclipse.