Mitchell, Maria

Mitchell, Maria, 1818–89, American astronomer and educator, b. Nantucket, Mass. Mitchell taught school in Nantucket, and later became a librarian. On Oct. 1, 1847, Mitchell discovered a comet (1847 VI) not far from Polaris. She was the first woman to be elected (1848) to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1857 a group of Boston area women presented her with a 5-in. Alvan Clark refractor, with which she expanded her studies of sunspots, planets, and nebulae. By taking daily photographs of the sun, she made many discoveries about the nature of sunspots. In 1865 Mitchell became professor of astronomy at Vassar College and taught several distinguished women astronomers. After her death her students continued to visit her birthplace in Nantucket; it is preserved as the Mitchell House. The Maria Mitchell Observatory was built next door, and in 1912 Harvard established a research program there. In 1913 a 7.5-in. (19.1 cm) photographic refractor was added. The Observatory has an archive of over 8,000 photographs of variable star fields, and offers a summer program for young people about to enter college.

See biographies by P. M. Kendall (1896), M. K. Babbitt (1912), and H. Wright (1949, repr. 1959).

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