As the daughter of a forward thinking Lutheran minister, Maria Kirch was educated by her father and her uncle at a time that girls didn’t have many opportunities, educational or otherwise. After studying with astronomer Christoph Arnold she was introduced to mathematician and astronomer Gottfried Kirch whom she married in 1692.
While neither attended formal training they worked as a team to make astronomical observations, although she was usually seen as his assistant not his equal. Together they made observations and calculations that they then used to create calendars and ephemerides – documents that gave the positions of astronomical objects at given times. The Royal Academy of Sciences in Berlin sold their calendars which included information on the phases of the moon, the setting sun, eclipses, and the position of the sun and other planets.
In April 1702, while making her nightly observations, Maria discovered a previously unknown comet and is now credited as the first woman to discover a comet – credit which she didn’t receive at first for her husband claimed the discovery and naming rights. It is thought that maybe he feared the ridicule if people knew she was the discoverer or that she couldn’t claim it because she only wrote in German and not the proper Latin but nonetheless it wasn’t until 1710 that Gottfried admitted the truth.
But she did publish her own work including her observations of the Aurora Borealis, a pamphlet on the conjunction of the sun with Saturn and Venus and an approaching conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn in 1712.
Completing her work became more difficult for her with the passing of her husband in 1710 at which time she petitioned the Royal Academy to allow her to continue to produce their calendars. The head of the academy supported her petition but the membership denied her the position, she felt due to her gender. In 1716 her son was named the director of the Berlin Observatory and she his assistant, but Maria was forced into retirement as the Royal Academy members thought she was too visible at the observatory.
Written by Angela Goad