The eclipse of a star astronomer
Name: Maria Margarethe Winkelmann-Kirch
Claim to fame: First woman to discover a comet
Maria Margarethe Winkelmann-Kirch (1670-1720) was a star of German astronomy who discovered her own comet. As “assistant” to her husband and later to her son, she contributed to establishing the Berlin Academy of Science as a major centre of astronomy.
Maria Margarethe Winkelmann was born in Leipzig, in the German state of Lower Saxony. Her father, a Lutheran minister, believed in education for women and began teaching her from an early age. When her father died, her uncle continued to teach her.
She showed an early interest in astronomy. To pursue this interest, Maria became the student, apprentice and assistant of Christopher Arnold, a self-taught astronomer who worked as a farmer – eventually moving in with him and his family.
Married to the stars
Through Arnold, Maria met one of the most famous German astronomers of the time, Gottfried Kirch. Despite a three-decade age gap, they married in 1692, and embarked on a joint career in astronomy. In 1700, at the foundation of the Berlin Academy of Science, he was appointed the Academy’s astronomer where she would serve as his unofficial but appreciated assistant. Their marriage also produced four children, all of whom followed in their parents‘ footsteps and studied astronomy.
Both during her husband’s life and after he died, Maria devoted herself to the pursuit of astronomy. While she was rewarded with a certain measure of fame and respect, including an offer of work from the Russian Tsar Peter the Great, she paid a heavy price in terms of adversity, ridicule and even periods of poverty.
Master in an apprentice’s garb
Despite the fact that her gender excluded her from studying at university, many astronomers of the age were not university educated, and most of the actual practice of the discipline took place outside these formal institutions. In fact, astronomy at that time was structured more along the lines of traditional guilds than the professional academic discipline we know it as today.
This is refl ected in the fact that neither Christopher Arnold nor Gottfried Kirch had ever studied at a university. Following their marriage, Kirch took over where Arnold had left off and continued Maria’s instruction – but the apprentice soon became at least the equal of the master.
The sky’s the limit
At the Berlin Academy of Science, Maria and Gottfried worked closely together, though only he held the official position of astronomer. In Berlin, Maria was in the habit of observing the heavens every evening from 9pm. Often she and her husband observed together, each contemplating another part of space. Using their observations of the night skies, they performed calculations to produce calendars and almanacs, with information on the phases of the moon, the setting of the sun, eclipses, and the position of the sun and other planets.
This was a real money-spinner for the Academy, which derived much of its income from the royal monopoly granted it on the sale of calendars, which was a lucrative trade. This meant that astronomers, despite lacking the highbrow prestige of other scholars, were a valuable asset. Starting in 1697, the couple also began recording weather information.
The couple also struggled to improve the Academy’s astronomical facilities. The active role Maria played in this being is testified to in letters to the Academy’s president Gottfried von Leibniz.
Tail of a comet
In 1702, Maria became the first woman to discover a previously unknown comet, ‘Comet of 1702’ (C/1702 H1). However, the comet’s discovery was published by Gottfried, who did not credit Maria in his tract, probably because he feared that as the Academy’s official astronomer he could not acknowledge his wife’s contributions openly. In any event, Gottfried made up for this, in 1710, by revealing the true discoverer of the comet as ‘my wife’, but it was not renamed.
Despite this major oversight, Maria’s skill and accomplishments were widely recognised – albeit informally. In a 1709 letter of introduction to the Prussian court, where she was to give a talk on sunspots, the Academy’s president Leibniz, a great admirer of her work, wrote: “Her achievement is not in literature or rhetoric but in the most profound doctrine of astronomy… I do not believe that this woman easily finds her equal in the science in which she excels.”
Out in the cold
Although she dedicated some two decades of her life to making the Academy one of the foremost centres of astronomy, once her husband died in 1710, the institute abandoned her. Her request for her son to be appointed astronomer and she only his assistant was turned down by the Academy, which did not wish to set a precedent and feared ridicule from other institutions. Leibniz was the lone voice defending her.
She spent the following 18 months petitioning the royal court for the position, and received a fi nal rejection in 1712. Expressing her disappointment, she said: “Now I go through a severe desert, and because… water is scarce… the taste is bitter.”
It was about this time that she wrote in the preface to one of her publications that a woman could become “as skilled as a man at observing and understanding the skies”.
Written in the tsars
The position would not just have been an honour, but it would have helped support her four children who were now left without a breadwinner. Unemployed and unappreciated, Maria went to work until 1714 at the private observatory of family friend and keen amateur astronomer Baron Bernhard Frederick von Krosigk. In 1716, she received an offer to work for Russian tsar, Peter the Great, but preferred to remain in Berlin where she continued to calculate calendars.
Ironically, her son, Christfried, did eventually become director of the Academy’s observatory and took his mother and sisters in as his assistants. But the high profile Maria kept led the Academy’s council to force her to leave. She continued to work in private but conditions eventually forced her to abandon astronomy.
Maria Winkelmann-Kirch was not only one of the foremost and best-known astronomers of her age, but she was also the first woman to discover a comet. Despite the disappointments she experienced during her career in the shadows, her publications brought her some recognition during her lifetime and were an enduring contribution to astronomy.
They included her observations on the Aurora Borealis (1707), a pamphlet on the conjunction of the sun with Saturn and Venus (1709), and a well-received pamphlet in which she predicted a new comet (1711).