Nantucket astronomer Maria Mitchell’s legacy still shines after 200 years

Maria Mitchell would no doubt be surprised at the scope and continuing growth of the nonprofit organization that bears her name. But it’s safe to say she would be pleased to know the Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association is dedicated to promoting the values of learning and enlightenment that she and her family held dear.

August 1, 2018 will mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Maria Mitchell, America’s first female astronomer. Born August 1, 1818 on Nantucket, she earned fame by discovering a comet in 1847 while exploring the night sky from the roof of Nantucket’s Pacific Bank, where her father was cashier. She was the first woman to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and went on to be the first astronomy professor at Vassar College.

The third of 10 children, Maria (pronounced Ma-rye-ah) Mitchell was born into a Quaker family where learning was highly valued. Her father was a teacher and a noted astronomer who held an important role on Nantucket, at that time the whaling capital of the world: He rated the chronometers on which sailors depended to determine their location while at sea. He shared his passion for astronomy with his second daughter, who was a naturalist from an early age and by 14 was trusted to rate ship chronometers herself.

“Her first love, she always said, was mathematics,” says Jascin Leonardo Finger, deputy director and curator of the Mitchell House, Archives and Special Collections for the Maria Mitchell Association. “Her father led her to astronomy.” Maria, Leonardo Finger explains, felt compelled to keep her father company during his nightly sessions peering at the sky through a telescope. “William was observing every night, and she felt badly that he was out there freezing,” she says.

Astronomy was part of a broader interest in the natural world that William and Lydia Mitchell shared with their children, and was very much in keeping with 19th century island life. “Her father was a teacher and took long walks with his students daily,” Leonardo Finger says. “The whole idea of observing nature was very much a Nantucket thing.”

“Comet sweeping” was a common practice in the 1800s, Leonardo Finger notes, but Maria, who was the first librarian at the Nantucket Atheneum and had also run her own school, brought it to another level. Her discovery changed her life and put Nantucket on the map as more than a whaling port.