Maria Mitchell was a 29-year-old librarian when she won a gold medal prize for discovering a comet – dubbed “Miss Mitchell’s Comet” – on Oct. 1, 1847.
She spied it from the rooftop of the Pacific Bank in Nantucket, and she almost lost out to a Jesuit priest who saw it two days later from the Vatican’s planetarium. A little help from a friend in high places – Harvard – helped her win the prize.
The medal had been offered in 1832 by Frederick VI of Denmark to anyone who discovered a comet by telescope. Father Francesco de Vico reported his sighting of the comet to Danish authorities before Maria Mitchell did. He was awarded the medal – but then the Mitchell family’s friends intervened.
Maria Mitchell was born Aug. 1, 1818, one of Lydia and William Mitchell’s 10 children. They were Quakers who believed in educating women, and William Mitchell was especially keen to educate children about astronomy. He kept up a correspondence with Harvard astronomer William Bond.
On Oct. 1, 1847, Maria Mitchell climbed to the Pacific Bank roof and looked at the stars through her telescope. At 10:30 pm she saw the comet.
The rule for the medal was that the claimant had to notify Danish officials by the next mail. On Nantucket, the next mail was October 3, two days after Maria saw the comet. A few months later, her father described what happened in a letter to Harvard President Edward Everett:
No steps were taken by my daughter in claim of the medal of the Danish king. On the night of the discovery, I was fully satisfied that it was a comet from its location, though its real motion at this time was so nearly opposite to that of the earth (the two bodies approaching each other) that its apparent motion was scarcely appreciable.
He then urged her to publish her discovery immediately, but she resisted just as strongly, he wrote.
She remarked to me, ‘If it is a new comet, our friends, the Bonds, have seen it. It may be an old one, so far as relates to the discovery, and one which we have not followed.’ She consented, however, that I should write to William C. Bond, which I did by the first mail that left the island after the discovery.
Edward Everett to the Rescue
Everett that day sent an appeal to Prof. Heinrich Schumacher. Schumacher had suggested the medal to Frederick VI and, according to the rules, was the person who had to be notified about the discovery of a comet. Wrote Everett,
Miss Mitchell saw the comet at half-past ten o’clock on the evening of October 1st. Her father, a skillful astronomer, made an entry in his journal to that effect. On the third day of October he wrote a letter to Mr. Bond, the director of our observatory, announcing the discovery. This letter was despatched the following day, being the first post-day after the discovery of the comet. This letter I transmit
to you, together with letters from Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Bond to myself. Nantucket, as you are probably aware, is a small, secluded island, lying off the extreme point of the coast of Massachusetts. Mr. Mitchell is a member of the executive council of Massachusetts and a most respectable person.
As the claimant is a young lady of great diffidence, the place a retired island, remote from all the high-roads of communication; as the conditions have not been well understood in this country; and especially as there was a substantial compliance with them–I hope his Majesty may think Miss Maria Mitchell entitled to the medal.
On Oct. 6, 1848, King Frederick VII awarded Maria Mitchell the gold medal.
This story updated in 2022.