On a clear autumn night in 1847, 29-year-old Maria Mitchell climbed to the roof of the Pacific National Bank on Nantucket and swept the sky with her telescope.
She saw a blurry light in the heavens and realized what she saw: a comet. The discovery would change her life.
She had nine brothers and sisters, and all the children received a quality education. They were Quakers, and intellectual equality was a tenet of the Quaker religion.
William Mitchell built his own school when Maria was 11, and she worked as his teaching assistant. He was an astronomy enthusiast and let Maria help him with his telescope. By the time she was 14, sailors trusted her to do navigational calculations for whaling voyages.
She started her own school in 1835, welcoming children of all races. It provoked controversy. The next year she accepted a job as the first librarian of the Nantucket Athenaeum.
At night she would go to the roof of the Pacific National Bank where her father was then a cashier and look at the skies through her telescope.
It was on Oct. 1, 1847, that she saw the comet. As her parents entertained guests, Maria slipped out of the house and onto the roof of the Pacific National Bank. She then summoned her father to look at the comet, and they watched it for a while until they knew for sure.
Maria Mitchell Wins the Medal
King Frederick VI of Denmark in 1832 had offered a gold medal to anyone who discovered a comet that the naked eye couldn’t see.
She almost lost out to a Jesuit priest who saw it two days later from the Vatican’s observatory.
Father Francesco de Vico reported his sighting of the comet to Danish authorities before Maria Mitchell did. He received the medal – but then the Mitchell family’s friends intervened.
Maria’s father had told her to say nothing about her discovery, and he sent a letter about it to Professor G.P. Bond at Harvard.
According to the medal’s rule, the claimant had to notify Danish officials by the next mail. On Nantucket, the next mail left on Oct. 3, two days after Maria saw the comet. On Jan. 15, 1848, her father described what happened in the letter.
Bond forwarded the letter to Harvard President Edward Everett. Everett then forwarded the letter to Prof. Heinrich Schumacher. He had suggested the prize to King Frederick, who had named him the person to notify of a comet sighting.
Everett then wrote to the king. He described Maria as a ‘young lady of great diffidence.’ Nantucket, he wrote, was ‘a retired island, remote from all the high roads of communication.” Everett also argued that Maria had substantially complied with the conditions of the prize.
“I hope his Majesty may think Miss Maria Mitchell entitled to the medal,” he concluded.
She won the prize — and the comet was named ‘Miss Mitchell’s Comet.’
Suddenly Maria Mitchell had international fame. She went on to travel the world and teach astronomy at Vassar as the college’s first faculty appointment. Her stature and teaching ability helped establish the fledgling institution. She once said:
Study as if you were going to live forever; live as if you were going to die tomorrow.
She died at the home of her sister in Lynn, Mass., on June 28, 1889.
She was the first woman named to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The Maria Mitchell Association, founded in 1902, now owns in Nantucket the Maria Mitchell Observatory. It also owns the Loines Observatory, the Maria Mitchell Aquarium, a natural history museum and the Maria Mitchell birthplace. The National Register of Historic Places lists them all.
If you enjoyed this story, you may also want to read about the Weston meteorite of 1807 here. This story was updated in 2023.
Image: Maria Mitchell Observatory By Versageek – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4793051.