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First Professor

September 2, 2015

By the fall of 1865, Maria Mitchell was already the most famous female astronomer in the country. She’d discovered a comet, and become the first woman admitted to two leading scientific societies. And 150 years ago this month, she became the first woman in the country to serve as a professor of astronomy.

Maria Mitchell at her deskMaria Mitchell at her deskMitchell’s father was an amateur astronomer, and he taught Maria how to use a telescope. At age 12, she helped him observe a solar eclipse.

She later became a librarian, and used her free time to study many topics, including astronomy. And at night, she used her father’s telescope to scan the skies.

In 1847, she saw a new comet through the telescope, bringing her nationwide fame. Later, she was hired by the U.S. Nautical Almanac to compute the position of Venus.

When Matthew Vassar founded a new women’s college, in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1865, Mitchell was the first person he hired for its faculty. She and her father lived in the college’s observatory building, where she also taught classes.

Mitchell felt her students should learn the practical side of astronomy, so at night, they congregated at the observatory to observe the planets, the moons of Jupiter, and other targets. And during the day, they observed sunspots.

Mitchell kept her teaching post until 1888. She helped her students become some of the first women in the country to earn degrees in astronomy — and pursue Mitchell’s own passion for the stars.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2015

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