No. 428:
Maria Mitchell

Today, an astronomer has something to teach us. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Nobel prizes weren't given until 1901. Throughout the 1800s royal medals were the medium of scientific recognition. Americans were latecomers to big-time science. Yet we had our first royal prize in astronomy by 1850. It was the Danish Royal Medal, and the winner was Maria Mitchell. She won it for discovering a new comet in 1847, when she was only 28.

Mitchell was raised by a Quaker family in Nantucket. Her father worked at many jobs by day; but he was an astronomer by night. It made a curiously right combination for young Maria. Nineteenth-century Quakers took the education of girls seriously. The seafarers of Nantucket took astronomy seriously. And Maria Mitchell's father took her seriously. She started helping with his observations when she was 12.

Maria was working in a library by day and star-gazing by night when the Danish Medal opened doors for her. She became the first female member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The Nautical Almanac Office hired her to do calculations. She went about as far as any woman could go, 140 years ago.

Then Matthew Vassar set up a college to provide women with an education as good as men's. He hired Maria Mitchell, now 47, as the first astronomy professor at the new Vassar College.

Up to then she'd been shy and quiet. Now she had to stand up and talk to people. She took to the new role. Astronomy, says writer Peggy Kidwell, turned from an end to a means. It was the means by which she could stir up her students' minds. And stir them she did. All the while her interests expanded to larger questions about women in science. She helped form the American Association of Women. She was the second president.

We've all but forgotten Maria Mitchell today. She didn't make it into our textbooks. But pioneers seldom get into textbooks. Pioneers help others get there, while they remain invisible. For example, a lady named Annie Jump Cannon set out with one of Mitchell's students to classify stars by spectral means. That led to a great ordering of the heavens. Annie Jump Cannon does appear in encyclopedias and texts. She and others like her followed Mitchell and gave substance to her dreams.

Astronomy is an odd field. Down through history, women have been a major but often invisible part of it. Here's a photo of Mitchell near her 60th birthday. She sits under the lens of the Vassar telescope. She looks like Whistler's mother, stiff and formal under the lens of the camera. But her face is composed -- the face of a woman who knows full well what it is she's started.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Kidwell, P.A., Three Women in American Astronomy. American Scientist, Vol. 78, May-June, 1990, pp. 244-251.

Maria Mitchell is well represented on the web. For pictures and more of her history, see:  or