August 1st: Maria Mitchell!

What a great week for Google Doodles: here in the U.S., they’ve honored a second woman in a single week! This time, the Doodle celebrates the birthday of famed astronomer Maria Mitchell.

The Google Doodle logo celebrating Maria Mitchell's 195th birthday, posted on August 1, 2013.

The Google Doodle logo celebrating Maria Mitchell’s 195th birthday, posted on August 1, 2013.

Mitchell, born on this day in 1818, is perhaps most famous for the discovery of the eponymous “Miss Mitchell’s comet” in 1847. At the time, the King of Denmark was offering a gold medal to the discoverers of “telescopic” comets (those too faint to be seen with the naked eye). Mitchell won the medal and all of the international acclaim that came with it.

As a young woman, she worked on astronomical calculations and amateur astronomy projects with her father, sparking her interest in astronomy and nurturing her talent for working with telescopes. They lived on Nantucket, and astronomical calculations were critical there for the navigation of whaling vessels. Thus, Mitchell’s talent was prized and played a significant role in her community. Eventually, Mitchell worked with her father on professional observations commissioned by the Coast Guard. She was also teacher (opening her own school when she was only 17) and a librarian.

Portrait of Maria Mitchell with her telescope.

Portrait of Maria Mitchell with her telescope (H. Dassel, painted in 1851).

The discovery of the comet made her famous worldwide, and also launched her independent astronomical career. Mitchell was employed by the US Nautical Almanac Office, then joined Vassar College as its first faculty member. In addition to taking her back to her roots as an educator, her career at Vassar gave her access to what was then the third-largest telescope in the country. Mitchell taught there from 1865 to 1888, leaving only when her health failed. Mitchell died on June 28, 1889.

Scientifically, Mitchell specialized in observations of sunspots and planetary surfaces. In addition, Mitchell was the first female member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and was elected to the American Philosophical Society. Biographies of Mitchell also note that, upon her discovery that Vassar was paying her less than her less experienced male colleagues, she insisted on a raise and was granted it.

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2 thoughts on “August 1st: Maria Mitchell!

  1. Maria Mitchell was amazing and should be much better known. But one quick correction: she was not the first female member elected to the American Philosophical Society.

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