Tuesday, March 30, 2021


Maria Mitchell deserves to be honored on the newest series of U.S. circulating commemorative quarter dollars, 2022-2025. She was the first American woman to be a professional astronomer, and one of the first American astronomers acknowledged by both European and American academic communities. An informally educated autodidact, she became the first professor of astronomy at Vassar. The spotlight of fame fell on her when she was the first person in history to discover a comet using a telescope. The year was 1847. She was 29 years old. For her work, she won the gold medal offered by the King of Denmark. 

Her name is pronounced “ma-RYE-ah” (like the wind in Paint Your Wagon). Born on August 1, 1818, she was raised on Nantucket where her father was a naturalist and banker. Her parents, William and Lydia (Coleman) Mitchell, were Quakers and her commitment to social equality was aligned to their faith. Largely self-taught, she attended classes at local schools, one of them run by her father. She studied mathematics (of course) and also learned astronomy, surveying, and navigation. One of her father’s occupations was setting the chronometers of whalers and other ships that harbored at Nantucket, and she did the work when he was away on the mainland, often at Harvard College.[1]

Annie J. Cannon
dollar coin 2019
 When she was 12, she and her father calculated an exact position of their home by measuring the Great Solar Eclipse of February 12, 1831. Two years later, she was setting chronometers for ship captains. When her father won a contract to work for the US Coast Survey, she accompanied him. 


Mitchell owned a Dollond-style achromatic ship’s telescope (3-inch aperture; 46-inch focal length).[2] In 1847, the family lived in the Pacific Bank Building on Main Street in Nantucket because her father was the head cashier there. She observed from the roof. On October 1, she saw a faint star that was new to her; and she soon verified that it was not listed in the tables and charts. Tracking it, she determined that it was a comet publishing her calculations of its orbit in Silliman’s Journal of Yale (later known as the American Journal of Science). That helped to secure her claim to primacy of discovery and the winning of the gold medal.[3] 


Email to the Board of the American Astronomical Society
recommending the Maria Mitchell Quarter.
(As with several others to astronomy leaderships, no replies have come.)

Later, she moved briefly to Boston and computed the orbit of Venus for the US Nautical Almanac [1]. She served as the librarian of the Boston Athenaeum and then toured Europe on her own, meeting with John Herschel, George Biddle Airy, and other astronomers. She returned to the States, and in 1865 she was appointed professor of astronomy at Vassar College, which, ironically enough paid her less than other professors, though not for her lack a university degree. She took her students to observations of the transit of Venus and solar eclipses (1869, 1878, and others) in Nebraska and Colorado. 

20 Prominent American Women To Be Honored On US 2022-2025 Quarters

Public Law No: 116-330 (01/13/2021 here 

at https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/1923/text.

The Circulating Collectible Coin Redesign Act of 2020

“(C) SINGLE PROMINENT AMERICAN WOMAN ON EACH QUARTER DOLLAR.—The design on the reverse side of each quarter dollar issued under this subsection shall be emblematic of the accomplishments and contributions of one prominent woman of the United States, and may include contributions to the United States in a wide spectrum of accomplishments ...

Nominations for women to be honored on the new series of coins are being curated in part by the Smithsonian Women’s History Initiative (https://womenshistory.si.edu and WomensHistory@si.edu).



[1] The Maria Mitchell Foundation biography here: https://www.mariamitchell.org/about-maria-mitchell

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maria_Mitchell (of course; but follow the footnotes)

[3] “Maria Mitchell at 200: a pioneering astronomer who fought for women in science, “ Richard Holmes, Nature, 26 June 2018, here:


Other Resources
“A Woman in Eclipse: Maria Mitchell and the Great Solar Expedition of 1878,” by David Barron, here: https://undark.org/2017/08/17/wilo-maria-mitchell-astronomer-eclipse/
“This Month in Astronomical History: Maria Mitchell,” History of Astronomy Division, American Astronomical Society, here:



She’s Such a Geek! 

Females and Women 

Bringing Philosophy to Athens: Aspasia of Miletus 

Hypatia of Alexandria 

The Madame Curie Complex 


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