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 extraordinary persistency.”
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