When asked to compile a list of great female scientists, a person may generally come up with one or two, often led by esteemed chemist Marie Curie, and followed, perhaps, by primatologist Jane Goodall or even DNA co-discoverer Rosalind Franklin.
But for Women’s History Month, it seems only appropriate to shed light on a less-known but still equally brilliant woman of science: Maria Mitchell.
Born Aug. 1, 1818, Maria (pronounced ma-RYE-ah) was fortunate to grow up in the Quaker community of Nantu-cket, Mass. The Quakers had extremely progressive views for that time period about education, believing that men and women should be intellectual equals. In that spirit, Maria was well-educated, even serving, at age 11, as a teacher’s assistant to her father at the school he had opened. It was her father, William Mitchell, who first introduced young Maria to astronomy. She started her own school in 1835 at age 17, but within a year had accepted a position as the first librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum.
It was during her tenure there that she discovered the comet that would become known as Miss Mitchell’s Comet. This discovery won her a gold medal prize from King Frederick VI of Denmark, who had begun the practice of bestowing such honors on the first discoverers of so-called “telescopic” comets (comets that were not visible to the naked eye). Engraved on this medal were the Latin words “Non Frustra Signorum Obitus Speculamur et Ortus” — which translate to “not in vain do we watch the setting and rising of the stars.” Mitchell gained worldwide fame, being the first American woman, and the third woman in history, to discover a comet.
Following her discovery, Mitchell was inducted into many scientific bodies and associations, the first female inductee in a great many of those cases. She was the faculty member chosen upon the opening of Vassar College in 1865, and remained on the faculty until a year before her death in 1889.
Not only was Maria Mitchell the first professional female astronomer in the United States, she was an advocate of gender equality and civil rights. The school she opened was one of the few anywhere to accept students of any race. She petitioned for, and received, wage equality for women at Vassar College. She was a friend and supporter of suffragettes such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and she opened countless doors for American women in not only pursuing the sciences but also in advanced education in general.
If ever there was a woman scientist worthy of recognition during March’s Women’s History Month, Maria Mitchell is surely that woman.
• Cole Leinbach is a junior at Davis High School and is a member of the Yakima Herald-Republic’s Unleashed program for teen journalists.