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#932908 08/01/20 05:46 AM
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Maria Mitchell - born on August 1, 1818 in Nantucket, Massachusetts - was a true pioneer woman. But she didn't brave a physical wilderness. Hers was the harder job of pioneering higher education for women. She was the first American woman to discover a comet, the first to be elected to scientific societies, and the first woman professor of astronomy.

Maria Mitchell

In her own words, America's first woman professor of astronomy tells of her meetings with the great and good of the nineteenth century. Maria Mitchell's sister Phebe collected excerpts from journals and letters to present a pot pourri of Maria's life, ideas and work.

Maria Mitchell - in Her Own Words



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Elizabeth “Pat” Roemer was born in Oakland, California on September 4, 1929. She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a B.A. in astronomy, and followed that with a Ph.D. in 1955. To finance her tuition she taught classes at local public schools.

After completing her degree, she worked as an assistant astronomer at the University of Chicago, researching at their Yerkes Observatory. Her next job was as an astronomer at the US Naval Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Then in 1966 Roemer was hired by the University of Arizona as an associate professor in the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. Three years later she was promoted to full professor. Though remaining as a faculty member there, in 1980 also became an astronomer at Steward Observatory in Tucson.

Roemer's special expertise was the detection of comets, though she also discovered the two main-belt asteroids. During her career she also detected 79 returning short period comets and computed many orbits for comets and minor planets. Over a period of 25 years, she took an extensive set of photographic plates of comets, attempting to get consistent data for the magnitudes of the comet nuclei. Her observations led to numerous significant cometary discoveries.
Besides her research, Roemer also served on astronomical commissions and organizations. She also received numerous awards for her groundbreaking work in astronomy.

[Credit: Lowell Observer, Wikipedia]


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Are there many young women venturing into this science?

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Are there many young women venturing into this science?

Angie, I don't really know the numbers of women in each area of study in astronomy-related subjects. I have found a few others who specialized in comets and asteroids, but couldn't state how common it is. Carolyn Shoemaker, who died last month, had discovered more comets than any other single individual (over 30 of them) and hundreds of asteroids.


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American astrophysicist Jacqueline Hewitt was born on September 4, 1958 in Washington, D.C. She was the first person to discover an Einstein ring.

Interestingly, when Hewitt graduated magna cum laude from Bryn Mawr College, it was with a degree in economics. However she had become interested in astronomy and went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for her graduate studies. She began to study gravitational lensing using the Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico, a very large radio telescope.

After completing her Ph.D, she was made postdoctoral fellow at MIT. While analyzing data from her graduate studies, she made an astounding discovery. She was the first person to discover an Einstein ring. Einstein had said that a massive object – like a galaxy, for example – could bend the light from another object, behaving like a lens.

Hewitt is currently the Julius A. Stratton Professor in Electrical Engineering and Physics at MIT. She's also received several fellowships and awards as well as being elected a Legacy Fellow of the American Astronomical Society in 2020.

In addition to her research interests, Hewitt is interested in the development of new instrumentation and techniques for radio astronomy. And she's part of a collaboration of U.S., Australian, Indian, and New Zealand universities and research institutions that is building the Murchison Widefield Array in radio-quiet Western Australia.

[Sources: Wikipedia, MIT]


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American astronomer Anna Winlock was born on September 15, 1857 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her father Joseph Winlock was an astronomer at the Harvard College Observatory, and he influenced her interest in astronomy. In addition, she turned out to be an able mathematician.

When Joseph Winlock died the family needed financial support, so Anna went to the observatory. Her father had volumes of observations, but they were of no use until the data was reduced. Since her father had taught her the principles of mathematical astronomy, she offered to do the reductions. The observatory realized they were on to a good deal here. They could get the work done and at a bargain rate, offering her - as a woman - half the rate they's have to pay a man. She was one of the first “Harvard computers” but there would be further highly competent & lowly paid women to follow.

Five years earlier, under the direction of Joseph Winlock, the observatory collaborated with foreign observatories in a project to prepare a comprehensive star catalog. It was divided into zones, and Winlock began to work on the section called the "Cambridge Zone" shortly after being hired. Working over twenty years on the project, her team's work on the Cambridge Zone contributed significantly to the Astronomische Gesellschaft Katalog, which contains information on more than one-hundred thousand stars, and is used worldwide by many observatories and their researchers. Besides her work on the Cambridge Zone, she Anna also contributed to many independent projects. she supervised in the creation of the Observatory Annals (a collection of tables that provide the positions of variable stars in clusters) into 38 volumes.

[Source: Wikipedia]


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Sophia Brahe was born September 22, 1556 at Knudstrup, Sweden (which was at the time was still Danish). She was the younger sister of Tycho Brahe. Coming from a noble family, both were ostracized for their scientific pursuits which were deemed inappropriate, especially for a noblewomen.

Sophia was a horticulturalist, but also educated in classical literature and chemistry. She was self-educated in astronomy, and frequently assisted her brother with his astronomical observations at his observatory Uraniborg. On one occasion she helped with the observations Tycho used to compute the total lunar eclipse of 8 December 1573.


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French astronomer Odette Bancilhon was born on 22 September 1908. She had a science degree and served as a meteorological assistant in Algiers for a year beginning in 1932. She was later appointed to replace Alfred Schmitt – whom she later married – while he did his military service. During this time she discovered 1333 Cevenola, a main belt asteroid.

In 1937 she was appointed as an assistant in the observatory. She married Alfred Schmitt in 1942 and in 1950 they were transferred to the Strasbourg Observatory in France. In 1956 they went to the Quito Observatory in Ecuador, Odette working there as an assistant and Alfred as observatory director. Odette retired in 1964.

Odette has a distinction given to few people, a main-belt asteroid named in her honor. In 1951 a former colleague at the Algiers Observatory, Louis Boyer, named his discovery 1713 Bancilhon in her honor.


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Russian Astronomer Pelageya Fedorovna Shajn, née Sannikova, was born September 22, 1894 to a peasant family in the village Ostanin located in the Solikamsky District of the Perm Governorate on the European slopes of the Ural mountains.

I wasn't able to find out what her young life was like or how she became educated in science and able to get a job at the Simeiz Observatory on the Crimean peninsula. But in 1928 she became the first woman ever to discover a minor planet – the asteroid 1112 Polonia. She went on to discover 19 minor planets and 140 variable stars, and was the co-discoverer of comet 61P/Shajn-Schaldach.

Pelageya married her colleague at the observatory, Grigory Shajn, who was a prominent Soviet scientist. After WWII he become the director of the Crimean Astrophysical Observatory. One of the minor planets discovered by Pelageya was named 1648 Shajna in honor of her and her husband.


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Mae Jemison, born on October 17, 1956 is an extraordinarily talented woman.

As a NASA astronaut, she was the first African American woman in space. Before her time with NASA she had entered Stanford University at the age of 16 and four years later had degrees both in chemical engineering and African American studies. Jemison then went to Cornell University to complete a medical degree, following it up with some time as a general practitioner and then a medical officer with the Peace Corps in West Africa.

After leaving NASA, among her other accomplishments, she was for several years a professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth Collge and the director of the Jemison Institute for Advancing Technology in Developing Countries. She continues to advocate science education and encourage minority students.

Jemison is also a trained dancer and in this video The Cosmic Dance she explains why she thinks dance was helpful for her as an astronaut.


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