In remembrance of Maria Winckelmann

2020 Dec 29 is the 300th anniversary of the death of Maria Margaretha Kirch née Winckelmann,1 noted in history as the first woman to discover a comet. 2020 is also the BAA year of Highlighting Women in Astronomy, and many thanks go to to John Chuter for his frequent references in his ‘From the Archives’ articles (Annie Russell, Mary Proctor, Elizabeth Brown, and more) and to Mike Frost and Bill Barton for reminding us of the contributions made by Fiammetta Wilson. I felt I should also contribute and remind us all of this one particular astronomer, fighting against the odds for recognition.

Born on 1670 Feb 25, she became one of the most famous astronomers of the period. Yet rather than this bringing her great acknowledgment, a comfortable retirement and a prominent place in history, the jealousies of her colleagues led to disappointment and no little poverty in her senior years.

In the 17th century it was very much a matter of pure chance if, as a female child, you learned to read, never mind enjoy any kind of broader education. In this case luck was on Winckelmann’s side in two ways. She was born in Pantizsch near Leipzig, Electorate of Saxony, and into a Lutheran family; her father believed that all children should have a good education, and so he ensured she received one. Luck was not all on her side because both her parents died when she was 13, but by then she was being educated by Christoph Arnold, who lived nearby. Arnold has the discovery of four comets to his name.

She became his unofficial apprentice (never a journeyman though) and later his assistant, living with his family. Luck then took another turn, and I leave it up to your own experience if you consider this good or bad. She met the, by then, famous German mathematician and astronomer Gottfried Kirch, a mere 30 years her senior. They married in 1692 and subsequently had four children, all of whom also became interested and worked in astronomy.

Sophia Charlotte, Queen of Prussia, was acknowledged as the driving force behind the development of the Berlin Academy of Sciences in 1700, bringing together her old tutor Arnold, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz, and others. She died soon after its establishment, but her grandson Frederick II continued its support. Its founding decree insisted upon its openness to all, including women (but the first woman to be elected a member on the basis of her scientific work was Lise Meitner in 1949).

In the same year Winckelmann moved with Kirch to Berlin on his appointment as Astronomer Royal of the Berlin Academy of Sciences. Upon Kirch taking up his role, Winckelmann became widely known as the ‘Kirchin’, a feminine version of their family name. She continued in the female footsteps of Maria Cunitz, Elisabeth Hevelius and Maria Clara Eimmart, all active astronomers in their own right in the 17th century.

Maria and Gottfried worked as equals, although she would only ever be acknowledged as his ‘assistant’. They produced calendars, almanacs and ephemerides, and recorded weather information. In fact as their children grew up they also became involved in meteorological observations and three became astronomers in their own right. In the early days at the Berlin Academy, observing conditions were challenging as the observatory was still under construction. They observed with portable instruments from their rooftop, and later on the tower of the still unfinished observatory. Over many years Winckelmann and Kirch alternated nights at the telescope but she also took the job of computing the ephemerides.

They produced the first calendar of a series, ‘Chur-Brandenburgischer Verbasserter Calender Auff das Jahr Christi 1701’. Friedrich III, Elector of Hanover, had decreed a monopoly on the production of calendars and the income from this was to help fund the Berlin Academy of Sciences.

Winckelmann was a dedicated observer and notetaker, and observed almost every evening starting at about 9pm. On 1702 Apr 21 her observations led her to discover the so-called ‘Comet of 1702’, C/1702 H1. Whilst the comet’s discovery is still attributed to her husband, his own notes state:

Early in the morning (about 02:00) the sky was clear and starry. Some nights before, I had observed a variable star and my wife (as I slept) wanted to find and see it for herself. In so doing she found a comet in the sky. At which time she woke me and I found that it was indeed a comet… I was surprised that I had not seen it the night before.

There were three independent discoveries of this comet. Francesco Bianchini and Giacomo Filippo Maraldi recorded it from Rome on 1702 Apr 20. In their observations they stated that it was a short distance above the horizon and said it resembled a ‘nebulous star’. It was then seen by Maria Winckelmann and identified as a comet, and finally recorded about two hours later by Philippe de la Hire in Paris on Apr 24. The last observation was by the two Italians again on 1702 May 5.

It has been noted as the 10th closest comet to Earth, at 0.0437au. Nicolas Louis de Lacaille, the French abbé and astronomer, subsequently computed the parabolic orbit. Originally it was designated the Kirch Comet and even when Gottfried finally confessed eight years later that it was his wife’s discovery, the name was never changed nor the official attribution to him. There is no doubt about her discovery as her original report of the sighting was published in the 1930s, by F. H. Weiss, who had it in his private possession.

I should mention the role of astrology in Winckelmann’s work. As many readers will be aware, historically astrology and astronomy were considered one and the same, and much of the funding for astronomical observations and calculations was though a widespread interest in astrology (hence the importance of the Academy calendars). She published her observations of the aurora borealis in 1707, and in 1709 wrote on the upcoming 1712 conjunctions with the Sun, Saturn and Venus, and in 1711 authored a well-received pamphlet in which she predicted a new comet. She was only the second woman astronomer to be published in the Holy Roman Empire since Maria Cunitz.

Winckelmann published these observations under her own name, but in German. Latin was the language used for scientific discoveries in the Empire (in the Acta Eruditorum, then Germany’s only scientific journal) at this time. Many of Winckelmann’s publications contained a certain astrological element and she prepared horoscopes. Between 1709 & 1711 she published the above-mentioned three pamphlets that were categorised as astrological. However, after her death, Alphonse des Vignoles, who was then president of the Royal Berlin Academy of Sciences, said, ‘Madame Kirch prepared horoscopes at the request of her friends, but always against her will and in order not to be unkind to her patrons.’ It is more likely that she understood the financial value of maintaining both subjects.

Despite being so well known and respected, once her husband died she was consistently refused a position in the Academy for which she and her husband had done so much to promote. She herself did not ask for the role of Academy Astronomer (though that would have been a natural succession), but many guilds at that time allowed a widow to continue as an independent master, or for a few years until her eldest son came of age.

She had the support of the president of the Berlin Academy of Sciences, Gottfried von Leibniz, but it was not enough. She had been continuing the production of the calendars, the main source of income for the Academy, during her husband’s last illness but the other Academy members were adamant that a woman’s senior position or lead would be an embarrassment to the Academy. Johann Jablonksi, Secretary of the Academy, wrote:

That she be employed in an official capacity to work on the calendar or to continue with observations simply will not do. Already during her husband’s lifetime the society was burdened with ridicule because its calendar was prepared by a woman. If she were now to be kept on in such a capacity, mouths would gape even wider.

It was also argued that giving the job to a woman, although other qualified candidates were very scarce, would set a precedent. Heaven forbid. She was allowed to remain in the tied property for another 6–12 months and given 40 thalers for her husband’s notebooks. She was presented with the Gold Medal of the Royal Academy of Sciences in Berlin in 1709, aged 40; history does not however record exactly for what it was awarded. She was never admitted as a member of the Academy. Only months earlier she had been presenting her sightings of sunspots to the Prussian court.

She wrote: ‘Now I go through a severe desert, and because the … water is scarce … the taste is bitter’. She had four children to raise alone, no home and no income (her husband having left little to provide for them).

Johann Heinrich Hoffmann, a less-experienced astronomer, was appointed to her late husband’s post of Astronomer Royal. During his tenure he was twice censured for poor work. Winckelmann’s relations with Hoffmann were not good, and he secretly used her knowledge whilst denigrating her publicly. After she left, he continued to fail.

In 1712 Winckelmann had to move and took work across Berlin. Her new role was to run the observatory of a family friend, Baron Bernhard Friedrich von Krosigk, which had been built in 1705.

Her time at von Krosigk’s observatory turned out to be the highpoint of her career, because she was now denominated ‘master’ astronomer and actually had two students to assist her. After Krosigk died in 1714, she worked as a mathematician in Danzig, and later Winckelmann and her son Christfried took over Hevelius’s observatory in Danzig. She was offered work for the Russian Tsar, Peter the Great, but she preferred to remain in Germany.

Later that year, Hoffmann’s death led to her son becoming an observer at the Berlin Academy’s observatory and thus Astronomer Royal with his mother and sisters, Christine and Margaretha, as assistants. Alas, her high profile caused much jealousy and annoyance. She was ordered to ‘retire to the background and leave the talking to… her son’. Thus in 1717, being forced to leave and without access to scientific instruments, she largely abandoned her professional astronomical career, although it is said she continued to work and observe privately.

She died of a fever in 1720 December. Her son continued at the Berlin Academy, as did her two daughters, but the daughters were never accredited as more than assistants.

Winckelmann was, surprisingly, not such an overly exceptional woman for her time. In fact between 1650 and 1720 more than 14% of German astronomers were women. The craft traditions of women in apprenticeships did foster some into the secrets of trades, but the exclusion of women from universities for centuries, and a new trend of ‘professionalism’ underlined this exclusion of women scientists from the more intellectual world. Women could learn through apprenticeships, but not become journeymen and thus could not travel and learn from master to master.

Winckelmann’s story is typical of many women in her era, demonstrating the importance of an open-minded father who educated her (and a mother who excused her from domestic duties), or in Winckelmann’s case, a kind of adoption by Arnold upon the death of her parents. Being then unable to attend a university, the next step was to marry a man recognised in her field of interest. But the new professionalism would not allow a woman to retain her husband’s position in which she was a partner, to see out his contract. The traditions that had once secured that under the guild system were now no longer applicable for women in science in new institutions.

The lack of access to university and to the academies to allow for broader discussion of new scientific ideas meant that many early women astronomers’ ideas and discoveries went undeveloped or underdeveloped. To maintain a position in the larger public imagination, a scientist needs to contribute something highly original even if this is often part of a team effort. Without access to such a team, other than as notetaker or recorder of observations (as Winckelmann’s two daughters became), it is often impossible to rise to the top levels of recognition, never mind stay there after your demise. That Winckelmann achieved what she did against the odds is incredible. Let us not forget her.

The minor planet (9815) Mariakirch was named after her.

This article appeared in the 2020 issue of the Comet’s Tale (no.39), published by the BAA Comet Section. My special thanks to Frau Ulla Wickmann for her extensive and infinitely patient enquiries to the German National Library and other German language sources.


1   I refer to Maria by her maiden name as this was the practice in her time.

2   A copy of Winckelmann’s report can be found in the Kirch papers, Paris Observatory, MS A.B. 3.7, No.83, 41 B


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