When Vassar College opened in 1865 and the trustees voted to allow women faculty, Maria accepted their offer. Athough she had never had any higher education, she had attended a school for young ladies conducted by an educational pioneer—the Unitarian minister Cyrus Peirce.
She was born on Nantucket Island. There she and her banker father made observations of the stars through a U.S. Coast Survey telescope. Although she retained Quaker connections, she attended the Unitarian Church on the island.
In 1847 she made the first telescopic discovery of a planet and won a gold medal from the king of Denmark. Her role as a scientist extended into the entire scientific community. Maria Mitchell helped organize the Association for the Advancement of Science, subsequently becoming its first woman member in 1850. She also was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.