Astronomer Maria Mitchell discovered a new comet in the night sky over Nantucket on October 1, 1847. Over the next few nights, a handful of other observers around the world spotted the same celestial visitor, but Mitchell had been the first. She published her findings in January 1848; a month later, she followed up with her calculations describing the length and period of the comet’s orbit. Today, comet C/1847 T1 is nicknamed Miss Mitchell’s Comet, and the discovery gained Maria Mitchell a place among the stars of astronomy.
Born on August 1, 1818, Mitchell was the daughter of a librarian and a teacher with surprisingly egalitarian ideas about educating their daughters. Mitchell grew up helping her father, an amateur astronomer, with his observations and calculations. By her teenage years, she could operate a chronometer, a sextant, and several kinds of telescope; she could predict the timing of a solar eclipse or figure precise latitude and longitude based on the positions of the stars and planets.
Mitchell spent most of her young adulthood teaching, first as her father’s assistant and later at a private school she founded – which caused a stir by being racially integrated at a time when even the abolition of American slavery was still considered a radical position. But the 1847 discovery of Miss Mitchell’s comet eventually put her on a new trajectory as a professional astronomer.
She received a flurry of recognition and publicity for her discovery, ranging from an 1849 gold medal from the King of Denmark (whose predecessor had, back in 1831, promised a gold medal to anyone who discovered a new comet) and recognition at the first women’s rights conference in Seneca Falls, NY in July 1848, to wordwide newspaper headlines and visits from leading scholars and thinkers of the mid-1800s. The very public addition to her astronomical resume probably helped Mitchell land a job with the U.S. Coast Survey (still in business as the National Geodetic Survey, under NOAA) in 1849; the Survey was putting together navigational tables with the positions of stars and planets in different places at certain times, and it was Mitchell’s job to do the calculations.
And in 1865, she became a professor of astronomy and director of the observatory at the newly-founded Vassar College in New York. Few years later, she and a colleague fought and won a protracted battle with the College’s administration for equal pay. Mitchell and her female colleague discovered in 1871 that they were being paid slightly less than half the annual salary of their male counterparts; even when they factored in the cost of housing provided by the College, the female professors were still coming up short. The “lady professors” refused to back down and were eventually granted equal pay and benefits.
Mitchell taught astronomy and studied the night sky at Vassar College until 1888, about a year before her death. She was also a lifelong advocate for women’s suffrage and for the abolition of slavery.