Headstrong: Maria Mitchell

September’s science woman is Maria Mitchell (1818-1889). She was an American astronomer and one of the first Americans to discover a comet and chart its orbit. She worked from her own make shift observatory by night while working as a librarian by day. It was from this small roof-top office with a small 2-inch telescope that she first saw the comet as a small gray smudge.

When news of her comet got out, she was showered with attention, people who had paid her no mind before were now welcoming her to their fashionable estates for dinner. While she appreciated the attention, she rolled her eyes at the unnatural interest some of these people were paying her.

Instead, she was eager to accept the recognition in the form of job offers. After some observational work for the US Coastal Survey, she transitioned to a position at Vassar College. She was keen to give her students experience with the university’s 12-in telescope (top of the line at the time), but being at an all-girls college meant that the students were required to adhere to a curfew. How can you learn astronomy without being able to study the night sky!?

Maria quickly worked to loosen the curfew and lobbied for immersive activities for her students. She sent her students to lectures by Harvard professors and provided them with opportunities to travel to observe eclipses. Maria observed everything from planets to sunspots to nebulae but her most lasting impact was how she inspired women to pursue astronomy.

3 thoughts on “Headstrong: Maria Mitchell

  1. A 2″ telescope! She was very committed to her science, wasn’t she? Sounds like she made a big impact in the field.

  2. I’m so impressed by the commitment and contributions of these awesome women! Her students were certainly very fortunate to have a teacher that worked hard to create more opportunities for them to learn! It would be so interesting to have “its a wonderful life” type insight to see how things would be different if she hadn’t made the contributions she did.

  3. A small grey smudge??!!!??!? I’d think it was something on my lens and brush it off. Glad she was able to leverage her work into a position at a school, and I can’t think of a better reason to miss curfue than “because I was looking at the stars” Excellent.

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