American astronomer and educator noted for her study of sunspots and nebulae and for her 1847 discovery of a comet.
Biography Maria Mitchell, the first acknowledged woman astronomer in the United States, was born in 1818, in an era when women were discouraged from pursuing scientific careers. It was her good fortune to have a father who himself was an astronomer and who delighted in fostering his daughter's abilities in mathematics and astronomy. Already assisting her father's research by age twelve and becoming an apprentice schoolteacher at sixteen, Mitchell went on to gain immediate worldwide fame in 1847 when she became the first person to discover a comet using a telescope and established its orbit. For this she was awarded a medal by the King of Denmark, and in 1848 she became the first woman admitted to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In the ensuing decades, she made many discoveries about nebulae, double stars, the paths taken by meteors, the surface features of the bodies of the solar system, and many other celestial phenomena. She was a pathbreaker in telescope photography, and made pioneering daily photographs of sunspots, which she demonstrated were cavities in the sun's surface rather than clouds as had previously been thought. In 1865 she became a professor of astronomy at Vassar College, director of its observatory, and its most distinguished faculty member. Her accomplishments and brilliance as a teacher were inspirational to many other women. An outspoken supporter of women's education, Mitchell was able to break numerous barriers to women in the sciences, cofounding the Association for the Advancement of Women in 1873.