Maria Mitchell was born on the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts, in the United States, on 1 August 1818. One of nine children, her Quaker parents decided to give her the same education as the boys, which was not common at the time. She discovered astronomy by assisting her father, William Mitchell, in his observatory. In the late 1830s, she worked as a librarian at the Nantucket Athenaeum, using the books available to her to further her education and culture. Mary set up a crude observatory on the roof of the bank where her father worked. She spent most nights observing the sky. On 1 October 1847, Maria Mitchell spotted a telescopic comet: 'Miss Mitchell', whose official name was C/1847 T1. Maria Mitchell and Father De Vico of Rome saw the same comet within a short time, so it is difficult to prove who was the first to observe it. A year-long dispute ensued to have Maria Mitchell's rights recognised.
Her discovery earned her a gold medal from the Danish King Frederick VI and admission to several American scientific institutions, such as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. As the first professional American woman astronomer, she was often the first female member of the associations.
The following year she became the first woman to be admitted as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and in 1850 the first woman to join the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
In 1865, Maria Mitchell became a professor of astronomy at Vassar College (again a first in the United States) and the first full professor (male and female) at the young university. She was also appointed Director of the University's Observatory. Later, despite her experience, fame and seniority, she learned that her salary was lower than that of many young astronomers. She insisted on a raise, which she obtained.
In 1842, she abandoned the Quaker faith to follow Unitarian principles. In protest against slavery, she refused to wear cotton clothes. She also befriended several women's suffrage campaigners and co-founded the American Association for the Advancement of Women.
For health reasons, she was forced to leave Vassar University in 1888 and died the following year.
"We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry." (Quote from Maria Mitchell)