Maria Mitchell (b. 1818, d. 1889 ) was an
American astronomer, professor, and advocate for the higher education of women.
Born on the island of Nantucket—a seafaring community where the science
of navigation was a matter of life and death—Maria learned mathematics and
astronomy from her self-taught father. She won widespread recognition in 1847
for discovering a new comet—an achievement which earned her a gold medal from
the King of Denmark and delighted the president of Harvard College, who
considered it a triumph that a girl from Nantucket should win the prize ahead
of all the most esteemed astronomers and observatories in Europe.
In 1862 Maria Mitchell became Professor of
Astronomy at Vassar College, one of the first American colleges for women. She urged
her students to question everything, even the most trusted authorities. “Can
the study of truth do harm?” she demanded. “Does not every true scientist seek
only to know the truth? And in our deep ignorance of what is truth, shall we
dread the searching after it?”
An outspoken advocate for the advancement
of women in science, Maria Mitchell was the first woman member of the American
Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the first woman to be hired by the U.S.
government for scientific work. Despite her many accomplishments, Maria did not
have an over-inflated sense of herself. Acknowledging the power of discipline
and hard work, she declared, “I was born of only ordinary capacity, but of
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