This is a chapter from the ebook ‘The Brilliant Women Collection’, posted here in honour of International Women’s Day. The whole book is available here for free.
Maria Mitchell with her students.
One starry night in the autumn of 1847 in Nantucket, USA, Maria Mitchell discovered a comet. She noticed through her telescope that 5 degrees above the North Star there shone a light that hadn’t been there before. She wrote down its coordinates and checked again the following night. Her father had taught her astronomy and she knew the skies well; she was confident that what she had seen was a comet. King Frederick VI of Denmark had promised a gold medal to anyone who discovered a comet through a telescope (because that’s just the sort of thing Kings did in those days). Typically, a man surfaced who claimed to have seen it first and he was awarded the medal. Thankfully, the misunderstanding was cleared up after some stern letter-writing; Maria claimed her prize a year later.
She was 29 when ‘Miss Mitchell’s Comet’ (now officially known as C/1847 T1) propelled her to fame; tourists came to see the woman astronomer (a shocking rarity in those days). Maria became the first female member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848; the fact that no other women members were admitted until 1943 shows how ahead of her time she was. Two years later she became the only female member of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences. Maria began to attend scientific meetings and became respected by many in the astronomical community. She got a job as a computer (a person that does computations, not like a human MacBook) monitoring the position of Venus.
In 1956, a rich gent by the name of General Swift employed her to escort his daughter, Prudence, on a trip around Europe. She jumped at the chance to see the stars from the other side of the world. Maria went to the Greenwich Observatory, and then travelled on without Prudence to France and Italy. When in Rome, she did as any Roman astronomer would do, and requested to see the Vatican Observatory. Again, she was stymied by foolish men who decided at first that they could not let a woman in. She finally succeeded in gaining special permission to enter, but only during the day, which rather defeated the object!
On her return to the USA, she was met with a more heartening surprise; women had collected money for the first woman astronomer and bought Maria her own telescope. She used this for many years to study sunspots. In 1865 she began work at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie in New York where she was Director of the Observatory and Professor of Astronomy. She was an enthusiastic teacher: before she became an astronomer, she had hired a room and started her own school. She was very keen on active learning and often called her students in overnight to watch a spectacular meteor shower.
She was also an early advocate of women’s rights and was active in the women’s suffrage movement. Maria believed that being born a woman should never be a disadvantage. She said, ‘Born a woman, born with the average brain of humanity, born with more than an average heart, if you are mortal what higher destiny could you have? No matter where you are nor what you are, you are a power.’ When Maria found out that younger, less senior male astronomers were being paid more than her, she successfully negotiated for higher pay. She was friends with Elizabeth Cady Stanton who famously rewrote a version of the constitution to say ‘All men and women are created equal’, and was a famous early female trouser-wearer. Together they vociferously opposed slavery. Throughout her life, Maria taught young women that they could be anything they wanted to be and encouraged their pursuit of science, echoing what her progressive father had taught her. She is remembered for her outstanding contributions to astronomy, teaching, human rights and women’s rights. An observatory in Nantucket bears her name, as does the 30km Mitchell crater on the moon (next to Aristoteles, near the north-eastern lunar limb if you were wondering. Come on, telescopes out!).
She famously said, ‘We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire; the more we see, the more we are capable of seeing.’ The pursuit of discovery and learning more about the universe was her life’s work. She inspires me to constantly be curious about science and particularly the fascinating frontiers of space. She demonstrates that despite the awkward obstacles instituted by traditional male attitudes, great discoveries have been made by women. An inspirational teacher, she has also shown how important it is to pass on your knowledge and be a pioneer for the sake of future generations.
Read about more brilliant women here.
Who inspires you? Comments Please! Likes and shares are also deeply appreciated.
Happy International Women’s Day!