Rediscover STEAM
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Rediscover STEAM

Maria Kirch, First Woman to Discover a Comet

Maria was born Maria Margaretha Winckelmann in Panitsch, Germany. She was educated at home by her father, a Lutheran minister. He wanted an all-rounded education for Maria, which only boys would have received at the time. After her father’s death, her education was placed in the hands of her uncle. She grew up with two sisters: Sara Elizabeth and Anna Magdalena.

Astronomy was of great interest to Maria from an early age. Following her homeschooling, she studied under Christopher Arnold, who was a self-taught astronomer and farmer. Arnold was known for observing the great comet of 1683, as well as the transit of Mercury in 1690. Maria became his unofficial apprentice and assistant, living with the Arnold family.

Through Arnold, Maria met Gottfried Kirch, a prominent German astronomer and mathematician. They wed in 1962 and later had four children, all of whom later also studied astronomy. Kirch mentored Maria in the subject, as women were prohibited from attending university.

Accomplishments

With his sisters, Gottfried had already been producing calendars that detailed information regarding various celestial bodies, such as phases of the moon, sunrise and sunset times, and planet positions. Kirch joined Gottfried in his work.

In 1700, Gottfried was offered the position of astronomer royal at the Court of Frederick III, elector of Brandenburg, in Berlin. At the time, the new observatory was still being built, so the Kirches conducted their work in a private observatory belonging to Bernhard Friedrich Baron von Krosigk, an enthusiastic amateur astronomer. Kirch and Gottfried collaborated to observe celestial activity. Kirch discovered a new comet in 1702, however, Gottfried claimed complete credit, for reluctance of revealing how closely he worked with Kirch. Only later in 1710, just prior to his death did he admit to his wife’s significant contribution to the discovery.

Not only was she the first woman to discover a comet, but Kirch pursued work in other facets of astronomy and published numerous articles detailing her findings. She did so under her own name and received proper recognition. This was uncommon at the time: Maria Cunitz, a Silesian astronomer, was the only other female in the Holy Roman Empire who was granted these rights. Some of Kirch’s work included her observations of the Aurora Borealis (1701), the conjunction of the sun with Saturn and Venus (1709), and the near conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn (1712).

When Gottfried passed away in 1710, Kirch requested from the Royal Berlin Academy of Sciences that she should continue producing calendars with her son, Christfried. She reasoned that while her husband was ill, she was capable of completing the required work herself. Nonetheless, her request was rejected by the academy, with only mathematician and president Gottfried Leibniz supporting her petition. This was due to academy members believing that a woman producing a calendar would have been an embarrassment to the institution. However, Kirch was permitted to remain in the housing that had previously been provided to the Kirch family.

Gottfried was replaced by Johann Heinrich Hoffman, an inexperienced astronomer. Kirch moved her work to von Krosgik’s observatory shortly after in 1712. Following von Krosgik’s death in 1714, Kirch became the assistant of a mathematician in Danzig, with her and Christfried taking over Hevelius’ observatory at request from his family. In 1716, Kirch and Christfried were offered a position by the Russian tsar Peter the Great to conduct research in Russia, but they declined. Hoffman died that year, and Christfried became the new astronomer royal. Kirch and her two daughters, Christine and Margaretha, were his assistants. Kirch was subsequently removed from residence at the observatory in 1717, with the Academy reprimanding her for showing too much prominence in contributions to the observatory, especially during public functions. This ended her scientific career. Kirch, however, continued her work privately, before she died of fever in Berlin. Kirch paved the way for generations of women astronomers to come.

“There is a most learned woman who could pass as a rarity. Her achievement is not in literature or rhetoric but in the most profound doctrines of astronomy… I do not believe that this woman easily finds her equal in the science in which she excels… She favours the Copernican system (the idea that the sun is at rest) like all the learned astronomers of our time. And it is a pleasure to hear her defend that system through the Holy Scripture in which she is also very learned. She observes with the best observers and knows how to handle marvellously the quadrant and the telescope”. — Gottfried von Leibniz, President of the Berlin Academy of Sciences

by Charlotte Wong

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