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The prize was to be awarded to the "first discoverer" of each such comet (note that comets are often independently discovered by more than one person).
Maria Mitchell won one of these prizes, and this gave her worldwide fame, since the only previous women to discover a comet were the astronomers Caroline Herschel and Maria Margarethe Kirch.
Her father's school closed, and afterwards she attended Unitarian minister Cyrus Peirce's school for young ladies.
Later, she worked for Peirce as his teaching assistant before she opened her own school in 1835.
She was friends with various suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and co-founded the American Association for the Advancement of Women in 1873.
Some years previously, King Frederick VI of Denmark had established gold medal prizes to each discoverer of a "telescopic comet" (too faint to be seen with the naked eye).
In 1881, reporting to the Association for the Advancement of Women, Mitchell expressed surprise that no women had been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences after her. She became professor of astronomy at Vassar College in 1865, the first person appointed to the faculty.
After teaching there for some time, she learned that despite her reputation and experience, her salary was less than that of many younger male professors. She taught at the college until her retirement in 1888, one year before her death.
Mitchell began recording sun spots by eye in 1868, but from 1873, her students and she at Vassar College were able to make daily photographic records, allowing more accurate records.
These were the first regular photographs of the sun, and they allowed her to explore the hypothesis that sun spots were cavities rather than clouds on the surface of the sun.