Maria Mitchell: America’s first female astronomer

“First, no woman should say, 'I am but a woman!' But a woman! What more can you ask to be?” - Maria Mitchell

A black and white photo of a portrait in which a young Maria Mitchell peering through a telescope. 1852.

A young Maria Mitchell peers through a telescope. 1852. (Image credit: Painted by Herminia Borchard Dassel. Photo in public domain.)

Maria (Mar-eye-uh) Mitchell was a renowned astronomer and professor in the 1800s and most likely the first woman to work for the U.S. government in a professional capacity. In 1845, she was hired by the U.S. Coast Survey, one of NOAA’s predecessor agencies, to assist her father on a project to establish cardinal points (each of the four main points of the compass — north, south, east, and west) for latitude and longitude in the U.S. and North America. Here, she was responsible for tracking the movements of the planets and compiling tables of their positions to assist sailors in navigation.

Pam Sullivan, GeoXO and GOES-R System Program Director, on Maria Mitchell’s legacy:

NOAA's GeoXO and GOES-R System Program Director, Pamela Sullivan, speaks about some of Maria Mitchell's accomplishments and her legacy.

NOAA's GeoXO and GOES-R System Program Director, Pamela Sullivan, speaks about some of Maria Mitchell's accomplishments and her legacy.

On October 1, 1847, Mitchell became the first American to discover a comet. She named it comet C/1847 T1 offsite link, but it became known as “Miss Mitchell’s Comet.”  In 1848, King Christian VIII of Denmark awarded her a gold medal prize for the discovery. She was the first American to receive this medal and the first woman to receive an award in astronomy.

A black and white photo of Maria Mitchell sitting at a small table with an open book.
Maria Mitchell sits at a small table with an open book. (Image credit: Public domain)

Mitchell went on to accept a position at Vassar College offsite link in 1865, becoming the first female professor of astronomy. She was also director of the Vassar College Observatory.

A black and white photo of Maria Mitchell sitting by a large telescope in the Vassar College Observatory with her student Mary Whitney. Circa 1877.
Maria Mitchell sits in the Vassar College Observatory with her student Mary Whitney. Circa 1877. (Public domain)

She was the first woman inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences offsite link and one of the founders of the American Association for the Advancement of Women offsite link, serving as the organization's second president.