Badass Scientist of the Week: Maria Mitchell
Maria Mitchell (1818-1889) was born in Massachusetts, USA, to a mother who was related to Benjamin Franklin and a father who believed that studying the natural world was the best way to praise God. While working as a librarian, Maria helped her father complete star observations for the US Coast Guard in their home observatory, equipped with a four-inch telescope. She memorised the sky, so in 1847 when she noticed a new star above the Pole Star, she knew it was a comet. It was named “Miss Mitchell’s Comet”, and she received a gold medal from the King of Denmark for her discovery which read: Not in vain do we watch the setting and rising of the stars. After travelling Europe with novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne and his family, Maria became Professor of Astronomy at Vassar University. She studied sunspots, Saturn and its rings, the double nebulae in the Great Bear constellation, the 1869 solar eclipse, and the color variations between stars—correctly concluding that the colours were caused by their chemical compositions. Maria became the first woman member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, The Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Philosophical Society, and helped found the American Association for the Advancement of Women and served as its president from 1874–76. After her death in 1889, she was elected to the Hall of Fame of Great Americans, The Maria Mitchell Observatory in Nantucket was named after her, and so was the Mitchell crater on the moon.
(Painting by H. Dasell, 1851)