A Legacy of Discovery Going Strong for More Than 150 Years

In 1847, Maria Mitchell became the first American to identify a comet through a telescope, and the organization named after her now empowers others to follow in her footsteps.

(Photo: Larry Landolfi/Getty Images)

Mar 17, 2015· 2 MIN READ

Sometimes discovery starts with opportunity. In the mid-1800s in the United States, most women were relegated to domestic tasks and child rearing. But luckily for Maria (pronounced “mah-RYE-ah”) Mitchell, her father was more interested in her ideas about the sky than in her skills with a broom.

Maria’s father, William Mitchell, was an astronomer and, as a Quaker, believed in education for all—a rare concept for the day. So the elder Mitchell encouraged his daughter to pursue her passion for astronomy.

Maria Mitchell (left) with her assistant at Vassar, 1888.
(Photo: Getty Images)

According to Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters, and Journals, on the evening of Oct. 1, 1847, Mitchell noticed a speck of light that hadn’t been there before. She called her father up to the roof to look; he did, and he agreed with his daughter: It was a comet, and the first one to be discovered with a telescope by an American.

Mitchell became known around the world for what would be called “Miss Mitchell’s Comet.” Tourists stopped by the library where she worked, fellow scientists and fans wrote her letters, and newspapers around the globe recounted her discovery.

Thanks to her accomplishment and her education in astronomy from her father, Mitchell was offered fellowships at renowned institutions. In 1865, Mitchell became a professor of astronomy at Vassar College—the first faculty member appointed at the school. In 1871, Mitchell discovered she was being paid much less than her male counterparts, which spurred her to begin advocating for women’s rights.

Mitchell spoke up for women everywhere who were being dissuaded from scientific pursuits. She cofounded the American Association for the Advancement of Women in 1873 and became its president in 1875. At a meeting in 1876, Mitchell presented a paper, “The Need for Women in Science.” In it, she said,

Does anyone suppose that any woman in all the ages has had a fair chance to show what she could do in science?... The laws of nature are not discovered by accidents; theories do not come by chance, even to the greatest minds; they are not born of the hurry and worry of daily toil; they are diligently sought, they are patiently waited for, they are received with cautious reserve, they are accepted with reverence and awe. And until able women have given their lives to investigation, it is idle to discuss the question of their capacity for original work.

Mitchell chaired the AAW’s science committee until 1888 and died in 1889.

In 1903, a group of Mitchell’s family members, former students, and admirers started the Maria Mitchell Association, and it is still in operation, encouraging people of all ages to experience science for themselves—a true testament to Mitchell’s passion for science education and the wonders it can evoke in us.

For Mitchell, imagination was key to discovering what’s possible: “Do not look at stars as bright spots only. Try to take in the vastness of the universe.”

Dr. Michael J. West, director of the Maria Mitchell Observatory, explains how the organization promotes Mitchell’s legacy as a forward-thinking educator who believed strongly in learning by doing: “For more than 50 years, MMA has provided summer research opportunities in astronomy for students, and many of them have gone on to have very successful careers at leading universities and astronomical observatories around the world. The success of our program was recognized in 2009 when the organization received the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring from President Obama.”

In addition to the organization bearing her name, the science Mitchell loved most is still very much an evolving field.

As West points out, “The recent Rosetta mission, which landed a robot probe on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, is a continuation of the quest that she and other astronomers have pursued for centuries, to understand our origin, our destiny, and our place in the universe.”

This piece is part of our six-part series “Woman Scientist All-Stars,” presented with the film Interstellar. We are remembering women scientists who have helped to shape our world and who still inspire us to reach for the stars.