Maria Margarethe Winckelmann Kirch


Born: 25 February 1670 in Panitzsch, near Leipzig, Germany
Died: 29 December 1720 in Berlin, Germany

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Maria Winckelmann was born in Panitzsch, a village about 10 km to the east of Leipzig. Her father was a Lutheran minister and he educated Maria at home. However, he died before her education was complete and from this time one of Maria's uncles took over the role of being her tutor. Astronomy was always the subject that fascinated Winckelmann most so she took the opportunity of studying with Christopher Arnold. Arnold was an excellent astronomer but he was a self-taught man who had not studied the subject at a university. He lived in Sommerfeld (a small town between Panitzsch and Leipzig, about 7 km from Leipzig) and had made quite a name for himself in 1683 with his observations of the comet which had appeared in that year and also with his observations of the transit of Mercury in 1690. The Council of Leipzig were so impressed with Arnold that they gave him a lump sum and gave him the right to pay no taxes for the rest of his life.

Winckelmann showed her skill as a pupil of Arnold, and soon she was essentially serving an apprenticeship with him. Again her expertise impressed Arnold and he made her his assistant. At this stage she lived with the Arnold family and through working with Arnold she met one of the leading German astronomers of the day, Gottfried Kirch, born in Guben on 18 December 1639. Gottfried was the son of a tailor and had studied at Jena, then he had studied with Johannes Hevelius from Gdansk. Hevelius had produced Selenographia in 1647, one of the first detailed maps of the moon's surface. Hevelius's wife Elisabetha collaborated with him in making astronomical observations, and this must certainly have helped Gottfried Kirch accept that women could make substantial contributions to astronomy. Kirch had then instructed his own three sisters in astronomy and they acted as his assistants.

Maria and Gottfried fell in love, but Winckelmann's uncle disapproved of marriage between the pair since he wanted Maria to be the wife of a Lutheran minister. This was a difficult situation and marriage without her uncle's blessing would certainly have been out of the question. Eventually he relented and Maria and Gottfried married in 1692. Of course Maria's uncle might also have found the age difference between the pair to be an issue for Maria was twenty-two, but her husband was fifty-two. Maria and Gottfried Kirch had a son Christfried (born in Guben on 24 December 1694) and three daughters the eldest being Christine (born in 1696, died in Berlin on 6 May 1782). It is worth noting that Maria was Gottfried Kirch's second wife and his three children with Maria brought his total number of children to fourteen.

Gottfried Kirch, having trained his own three sisters in astronomy, now was able to work with his wife who was already a trained astronomer. Gottfried made a living from producing calendars, which he had done from 1667, and ephemeredes so it was natural for him to teach his wife Maria to assist him in these tasks. In case the reader thinks of a calendar as simply giving the days of the week together with a pretty picture for each month, we should explain that the Kirch calendars included information on the phases of the moon, the setting of the sun, eclipses, and the position of the sun and the planets. The two worked as a team and, although they were probably equally skilled as astronomers, the social status of women at this time required that Maria Kirch acted as her husband's assistant rather than partner. Indeed this is exactly what she did and, when she discovered a comet on 21 April 1702, it was her husband who was credited with the discovery. We will give more details of this discovery below but first let us note that the calendars which Maria and Gottfried Kirch produced were of importance to the Royal Berlin Academy of Sciences and in 1700 Gottfried was offered the position of Astronomer Royal to Frederick III, elector of Brandenburg. He accepted and the Kirch family moved to Berlin in May 1700 where a new observatory began to be built for them. Building the observatory, which was officially founded on 11 July 1700 (the King's birthday), would take eleven years and there was no way that they could stop doing astronomy while waiting for the new building. They therefore made observations from their Berlin home, but then were given the opportunity of using Baron von Krosigk's observatory. Von Krosigk was an amateur astronomer and family friend who helped support Maria and Gottfried Kirch financially. From this one can deduce that the Astronomer Royal was not well paid!

We noted above that Maria began to help her husband produce calendars. In fact the Kirchs published a calendar each year from 1685 to 1728, beginning before Maria became involved, continuing through a period when both were working on the calendars, continuing largely due to Maria after the death of her husband in 1710 until her own death in 1720 when their son Christfried took over. The ephemeredes which Gottfried produced each year from 1681 were based on Kepler's Rudolphine Tables. Maria was a major player in producing the ephemeredes after their marriage in 1692, but the production ended in 1702 soon after they settled in Berlin.

Maria Kirch became the first woman known to have discovered a comet in 1702. Here is her husband's description of the event, written in 1710:-

Early in the morning the sky was clear and starry. Some nights before I had observed a variable star, and my wife 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.

This, however, is not the full story of the discovery of the comet for when it was discovered it was Gottfried Kirch who claimed that he had made the discovery. Whether he did so simply to avoid being laughed at, to avoid embarrassment, or because he wanted the glory for himself, we will never know. Let us just remark that he had discovered a number of other comets so the scenario that he wanted to avoid embarrassment must be the most likely. Whatever the reason, he admitted in 1710 that Maria had made the discovery. She never received the usual honour of having the comet named after its first discoverer, however.

Maria Kirch has a small number of publications to her name. For example she published her observations on the Aurora Borealis in 1707 and, in 1709, she published a work Von der Conjunction der Sonne des Saturni und der Venus on the conjunction of the Sun, Saturn, and Venus which would occur in 1712. Her husband Gottfried died on 25 July 1710 and she was allowed to stay on in the house that had been provided for the family. At this point Maria asked the Royal Berlin Academy of Sciences if she could fill her husband's position as Royal Astronomer. Her argument was simple: her husband had been ill for some time and she had actually been doing the job herself for that period, and after his death she had continued to produce the Kirch calendars. Gottfried Leibniz was president of the Academy and he supported Maria Kirch's application for the position. Other members of the Academy, however, were strongly opposed to Kirch filling the post. Although it was never stated officially that the only reason that Kirch was not given the position was due to her being a woman certainly Kirch believed that this was the reason. In fact the Academy appointed Johann Heinrich Hoffmann who had far less experience than Maria Kirch and very quickly showed that he was not up to the job.

In 1712 Kirch wrote another article on an upcoming conjunction, this time the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter which would occur in 1714. Multhauf writes [1]:-

She went to work in Krosigk's well-equipped observatory in 1712, and upon [Krosigk's] death in 1714 moved to Danzig. Peter the Great wanted her to come to Russia, but when her son Christfried became the astronomer of the Berlin Observatory, she joined him there.

In fact during this period Kirch had continued to produce calendars and almanacs as well as continuing to make observations. She trained her children to become skilled astronomers so when Johann Heinrich Hoffmann died in 1716, Kirch's son Christfried was appointed to the position that his mother had been denied. At first Maria and her daughters acted as Christfried's assistants but her health deteriorated and she had to give up her astronomical work.

Perhaps we should end this article by commenting on the role of astrology in Kirch's work. During this time astrology and astronomy were closely linked and much of the interest and funding for astronomical observations and calculations was though a widespread interest in astrology. It is true that Kirch's publications contained a certain astrology element and she also prepared horoscopes. However, after her death, Alphonse des Vignoles, who was at that time 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.

After her death, Christfried and his sisters continued the Kirch family's astronomical contributions [1]:-

Christfried was a hard working, serious man who never married; he lived with his three sisters in complete harmony for almost twenty years. He died of a heart attack.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson


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JOC/EFR December 2008
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