Celebrating Maria Mitchell and Her Legacy

The NHA and the Maria Mitchell Association are collaborating on an exhibition celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Maria Mitchell—Nantucket native, educator, and the first female astronomer in America. Using artifacts from both organizations’ collections, plus loan items from the Nantucket Atheneum and private collections, the exhibition will explore Mitchell’s background, influences, and life on Nantucket; her contributions to science as the first professor of astronomy at Vassar College; the legacy she left through her students; and the continuing relevance of her work today.

About Maria Mitchell

Maria Mitchell was America’s first woman astronomer. Raised on Nantucket in a Quaker family of ten children, she and her siblings were encouraged to learn and inquire by their astronomer father and librarian mother. All the children assisted their father in his astronomical work, but Maria took to it more.

On Quaker-influenced Nantucket, Maria saw women empowered to learn and work and lead, at a time when many women elsewhere were limited to the domestic sphere. Twenty-eight years on independent Nantucket shaped Maria for a future of hard work and major scientific and social achievement.

On October 1, 1847, Maria noticed something new in the night sky—a comet: a frozen mass of rock and ice orbiting the sun. William confirmed the sighting and communicated the discovery to the wider scientific world. Her discovery qualified her for a gold medal from the King of Denmark, which, after much delay, she received in March 1849. Maria was the first woman and the first American to receive this honor, and it propelled her to worldwide fame.

As the first professor of astronomy at Vassar College, her life off island was one of exploration and acclaim, training future women scientists and educators of the world. Maria taught at Vassar from 1865 to 1888. Her classes were the most popular at the college and she was the most beloved professor. As a professor, Maria detested lecturing, preferring that her students learn by doing. Twice she and her students traveled West to observe solar eclipses, in 1869 and 1878, this at a time when women typically did not travel alone let alone to observe an astronomical event. The 1869 eclipse made Maria and her students the only all women’s group observing under the auspices of the federal government.

A life-long advocate for women in science and education, Maria joined with other well-known women to fight for the rights of women.

Two hundred years after her birth, we celebrate her accomplishments and the lasting influence she has had in astronomy, women in the sciences, education, and women in education.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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