proF Female Firsts: Maria Mitchell, astronomer

"We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but is somewhat beauty and poetry." Maria Mitchell, 1871

Maria Mitchell prof magazine

Maria Mitchell, the first professional astronomer in the US, was born in 1818 in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Mitchell’s parents were Quakers who believed strongly in equal education for girls, and when her father William, a schoolteacher, showed Mitchell how to use a telescope at age 12, she developed an interest in astronomy. This interest followed her into adulthood, when she worked as a librarian and continued to observe through her telescope at night. In 1847, her diligent stargazing paid off: Mitchell discovered a new comet. Once her father convinced her to go public with her discovery, “Miss Mitchell’s Comet” was officially recognized. The following year, Mitchell was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and even received a gold medal from the Danish government.

Though she stuck with her career as a librarian, Mitchell continued to be called upon for her astronomy expertise. Finally in 1865, she became a full-time professional astronomer when the brand-new Vassar College hired here as their very first professor. For over twenty years, she thrived in her work there, researching and teaching astronomy to young women, who idolized her. In 1869, Mitchell was elected to the American Philosophical Society. And just four years later, she marked perhaps her most important achievement of all: she co-founded the Association for the Advancement of Women and served as its president for three years. Mitchell was not only a pioneering woman scientist, but an early feminist who believed, as her parents had taught her, that women and men should have equal educational opportunities. "No woman should say, 'I am but a woman!'” she declared in 1874, “But a woman! What more can you ask to be?"


Murray, Kathleen. “Maria Mitchell.” Quotabelle. May 2015. Accessed May 3, 2017.

Maria Mitchell Association. “Maria Mitchell for Students.” Accessed May 3, 2017.