Maria Winckelmann Kirch

First woman to discover a comet - "The Comet of 1702" (C/1702 H1)

Who is Maria Winckelmann Kirch?

Maria was born in Maria Margarethe Winckelmann on February 25, 1670, in Panitsch, Germany and she died in Berlin on December 29, 1720. She was a gifted German astronomer and the first woman to discover a comet. Even though her husband originally took credit for the discovery, he later admitted that she was the actual discoverer of the comet.

Her Early Life and Education

When Maria was young, Christopher Arnold, known as the Farmer Astronomer” was known for his observations of the comet of 1683 and the transit of Mercury of 1690. Maria studied with him from an early age, became his unofficial apprentice, and then became his assistant. She actually moved in with his family to work with him.

While living with the Arnold family, she met her husband Gottfried Kirch, another astronomer and a calendar-maker. Maria and her husband worked on many projects and explorations together, however, when Maria discovered a comet, her husband took full credit for it. He only recanted his claim eight years later.  Five years after Maria’s discovery of the comet, she discovered an aurora borealis or Northern polar light. This time, however, she asserted her claim to the find and published a paper on the phenomena under her own name.

Roadblocks as a Woman in Science

During Maria’s lifetime, women were not allowed to study at the University. However, with astronomy, this wasn’t as much of an issue. Even her husband didn’t have a university degree, even though he was the Royal Astronomer for Frederick III. Although many wives took over their husband’s positions in work after their death and Maria tried to assert that claim since she had been responsible for much of the work produced during his life, Maria was refused by the Royal Academy of Sciences.

After her husband’s death, she was offered a position as a Master Astronomer by von Krosigk, but after taking the position her benefactor died only a few years later. Maria’s son Christfried eventually became the director of the Royal Academy of Sciences’ Berlin Observatory. Maria once again hit a major roadblock when members of the academy objected to her taking too prominent a role when visitors came to the observatory. They forced her to retire and later to give up work in astronomy altogether. Despite all of the hardships and roadblocks, Maria still left a strong mark on the Astronomical field during her life.

Learn more about Maria Winckelmann Kirch from Scientific Women

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