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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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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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Henrietta Hill Swope was born on October 26, 1902 in St Louis, Missouri, USA. She got her master's degree in astronomy while working with Harlow Shapley, the director of the Harvard College Observatory.

Swopes's most important work was on variable stars, in particular Cepheid variables. Careful measurements of the variability of these stars made it possible to determine their distance. (This understanding was based on the work of Henrietta Leavitt who had previously worked at the Harvard College Observatory.)

In 1952, Swope went to California to work with Walter Baade on the variable stars detected by the new 200-inch Hale Telescope at Mount Palomar. It was owned by the Carnegie Institution. The largest telescope in the world (at that time) made it possible to use variable stars in other galaxies to determine their distances. She spent the rest of her career working there.

Retirement didn't end her contributions to astronomy. She had family money, and donated a large sum to the Carnegie Institution to develop optical astronomy facilities in the southern hemisphere. The Swope Telescope at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile is still in use. When she died, she left most of her estate to support Las Campanas.


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American astronomer Eleanor Frances “Glo” Helin was born on November 19, 1932. For over thirty years, she pursued astronomy and planetary science, first at the California Institute of Technology and then NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). In this photo Eleanor Helin is holding the discovery announcement of near-Earth asteroid 2100 Ra-Shalom, which she discovered.

At Cal Tech she worked with Bruce Murray to start the Lunar Research Lab to study the Moon in preparation for lunar landings. From lunar craters, she went on to initiate an asteroid survey from Palomar Observatory. The program discovered thousands of asteroids plus a number of comets. Of particular interest to her were near-Earth asteroids. Having moved on to work at JPL, during the 1980s she encouraged global interest in asteroids and organized the International Near-Earth Asteroid Survey.

After 25 years of the Palomar survey, she went for upgraded technology in her Near Earth Asteroid Tracking (NEAT). It operated from JPL from 1997-2007, and it was the first automated observing program. As the principal investigator she was given the JPL Award for Excellence and her team received a Group Achievement Award from NASA.

Helin herself is credited with the discovery or co-discovery of nearly 900 asteroids plus several comets.


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Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot the Space Shuttle and the first to command a shuttle, was born on November 19, 1956.

In addition to being an Air Force test pilot and flight instructor, she has degrees from four different universities. This includes two masters degrees, one in operations research and one in space systems management. Collins was selected as an astronaut candidate in 1990. She flew four shuttle missions, including one that involved a docking with Russia's Mir space station.


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Annie Jump Cannon, astronomer and suffragette, was born on December 11, 1863 in Dover, Delaware, USA.

Oh! Be a fine girl (guy)--kiss me! This is the traditional mnemonic for the star classification: OBAFGKM. Cannon devised the system and classified nearly a quarter of a million stellar spectra for the Henry Draper catalogue. She said that astronomical spectroscopy made it "almost as if the distant stars had acquired speech."

More about Annie Jump Cannon


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These early astronomers were amazing.

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American astronomy writer and editor Mary Helen Wright was born in Washington, D.C. on December 20, 1914. She obtained a Bachelor's degree and later a Master's degree in astronomy from Vassar College. After working as an assistant at a number of observatories, including Mount Wilson (1937), Vassar College Observatory (1937) and the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. (1942-1943), she became a freelance author and editor in the 1940s.

Her writing covered a wide range of scientific topics, the two books Sweeper in the Sky: The Life of Maria Mitchell (1949) and Explorer of the Universe: A Biography of George Ellery Hale (1966) undoubtedly being her best known works.

[Society for the History of Astronomy]


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