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Mitchell discovers a comet

This Day in World History

October 1, 1847

Mitchell discovers a comet


Each evening that weather permitted, Maria (pronounced Mah-RYE-uh) Mitchell mounted the stairs to the roof of her family’s Nantucket home to sweep the sky with a telescope looking for a comet. Mitchell—who had been taught mathematics and astronomy by her father—began the practice in 1836. Eleven years later, on October 1, 1847, her long labors finally paid off. When she saw the comet, she quickly summoned her father, who agreed with her conclusion.

Years previously, in 1831, Denmark’s king Frederic VI had offered to give a prize to anyone who discovered a comet using a telescope. While Mitchell’s discovery qualified, she had not followed the rules of notifying the king of her finding. Harvard’s president Edward Everett—a family friend—took up the Mitchell cause and used his position to argue that she deserved the medal. The king consented, and Mitchell had her medal.

The discovery and recognition made Mitchell’s career. In the spring of 1848, she was named an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. For the next dozen or so years, she remained active in astronomy and prominent in international scientific circles. In the 1860s, when brewer Henry Vassar was preparing to create a new college for women, he tapped Mitchell as professor of astronomy. She was one of only two women in Vassar’s first faculty. Mitchell taught at Vassar from 1865 until 1888, when poor health forced her to retire. She also served several years as president of the Association for Advancement of Women.

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