FROM A MERE two-inch telescope evolved an entire life of vision.
Maria Mitchell had for years studied and sat at that Nantucket telescope — in an observatory her father built over a bank — when, at age 29, she spotted the comet that would famously bear her name.
That telescopic sighting of “Miss Mitchell’s Comet,” on Oct. 1, 1847, would help open doors for a scientist as brilliant as anything she glimpsed in the night skies.
Today, Google pays tribute to the first acknowledged American female astronomer with a home-page Doodle (upon the 195th anniversary of Mitchell’s birth) that evokes that historic moment. But from then on, this woman of vision and passion and persistence would continue to make history.
This daughter of a large Massachusetts family — who benefitted from an educationally progressive Quaker background — would be feted by royalty for her comet’s discovery, and featured in Elias Loomis’ work on astronomic advances, and, the next year, elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences — the first woman to receive that honor, as well as the last one until well into the next century.
As a stargazing trailblazer, Mitchell led a life burning bright with firsts.
When Vassar College was founded in 1865, she was the first person — female or male — named to the faculty, her starpower immediately adding lustre to the institution. She would become director of its state-of-the-art observatory.
Mitchell was also apparently the nation’s first woman to be a salaried federal worker; as part of its weather forecasting efforts, the U.S. Coastal Survey reportedly paid her $300 annually.
Mitchell was a figure not only of celestial vision, but also moral conviction; she was an abolitionist who, during the Civil War, wouldn’t wear cotton picked by Southern slaves.
As a scientist and a teacher, a suffragist and increasingly a feminist, Mitchell would foster and seed the success for not only some future astronomers, but also numerous women leaders.
Mitchell died in Massachusetts in 1889, the year after she retired from Vassar. In the next century, moon craters and warships would be named in her honor, and she would be elected to the Hall of Fame of Great Americans, as well as to the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
We salute you, Maria Mitchell, on a life and legacy most stellar.