All clear, all beautiful

Maria Mitchell (2nd from left) with her astronomy students at Vassar College in 1870
Photo: Vassar College Archives and Special Collections

Maria Mitchell was born in Nantucket in 1818, and from a young age was passionate about astronomy, many a childhood hour spent sweeping the skies above with one eye to a telescope, her father often nearby offering guidance. It was on the evening of 1st October, 1847, that everything changed for Maria, for it was then that she spotted C/1847 T1, a comet that would soon be named ‘Miss Mitchell’s Comet’ in her honour and bring her instant, worldwide fame. But she didn’t stop there. Maria Mitchell broke many barriers, becoming the first professional woman astronomer in the United States, the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the first woman to become a professor of astronomy—a post she held at Vassar College from 1865 until 1888. And through it all, judging by her diaries, she never stopped looking up.

The Diary Entry

March 2, 1854

I swept last night two hours, by three periods. It was a grand night—not a breath of air, not a fringe of a cloud, all clear, all beautiful. I really enjoy that kind of work, but my back soon becomes tired, long before the cold chills me. I saw two nebulae in Leo with which I was not familiar, and that repaid me for the time. I am always the better for open-air breathing, and was certainly meant for the wandering life of the Indian.

Further Reading

Maria Mitchell’s papers are held at Vassar College, who also have some fascinating photos and documents relating to her time there. In 1896, some of her diary entries were reprinted in the book, Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters, and Journals, which is long out of copyright and can be read online. There is also Helen Wright’s biography of Mitchell, titled, Sweeper in the Sky: The Life of Maria Mitchell, First Woman Astronomer in America, which is also in the public domain and available on the intertubes.

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