Born to Quaker parents, William and Lydia (Coleman) Mitchell on Nantucket on August 1, 1818, Mitchell was an avid learner. The Quaker tradition taught that both boys and girls should be educated and Maria received an education at local schools and from her father’s schools and home tutoring. Her father was a great influence on her life; Maria developed her love of astronomy from his instruction on astronomy, mathematics, surveying and navigation.
At age 12, Maria helped her father to calculate the position of their home by observing a solar eclipse. By 14, ship captains trusted her to rate their ships’ chronometers for their long whaling journeys. Maria pursued her love of learning as a young woman, becoming the Nantucket Atheneum’s first librarian. She and her father continued to acquire astronomical equipment and conduct observations, working for the US Coast Survey among other entities.
On October 1st, 1847, Maria was surveying the sky from the roof of the Pacific Bank on Main Street, where her father was the head Cashier and where they lived as a result of his position. She spotted a small blurry object that did not appear on her charts. She had discovered a comet !which became known as “Miss Mitchell’s Comet. After we became famous, Maria was widely sought after. She resigned her post at the Atheneum in 1856 to travel throughout the US and Europe. In 1865, she became Professor of Astronomy at the newly-founded Vassar College. She was a founder of the Association for the Advancement of Woman, the first woman member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and one of the first women members of the American Philosophical Society. Her position as the computer for the ephemeris of Venus for the US Nautical Almanac made her one of the first women to work for the US federal government.
She had a reputation for expecting much of her students, but she was a favorite professor of many. She treated her students as equals; she famously said, to her classes, that, “We are women studying together.”
Although she had less time to conduct her own research, and she eventually gave up her job for the Nautical Almanac, Maria found satisfaction in teaching students what she knew. She found the same joys at Vassar as she had when she was a young girl in the house on Vestal Street, observing with her father
Best known for her astronomical research and professorship at Vassar College, Maria Mitchell did not limit her interests to academia. A pioneer in establishing women in the sciences, she devoted a great deal of time to finding ways for women everywhere to gain greater freedom and have their rights recognized in society. In 1872 Mitchell participated in the founding of the American Association for the Advancement of Women. As described in the Association’s constitution, the organization hoped “to receive and present practical methods for securing to Women higher intellectual, moral, and physical conditions.” In 1875 Mitchell was elected president of the Association, a post she held for two years, presiding over their third congress of women in Syracuse and fourth congress in Philadelphia.
Maria was an inspiration to her students. It was Vassar College that Maria felt was truly her home. She believed in learning by doing, and in the capacity of women to achieve what their male counterparts could. “Miss Mitchell” was beloved by her students whom she taught until her retirement, due to failing health, in 1888.
(Source: Britannica Encyclopedia. and The Maria Mitchell Association)