Maria Kirch was the first woman to receive credit for discovering a comet. But the credit didn’t come right away. Her husband was concerned that having his wife receive credit for a discovery would damage his career. So he claimed the discovery for his own. He didn’t set the record straight for eight years.
Kirch was born 350 years ago today, as Maria Winkelmann, in Germany. She was educated by her father and uncle. And she learned about the stars from a local astronomer.
The astronomer introduced her to her future husband, Gottfried Kirch. After they were married, he was made Astronomer Royal of Brandenburg. Maria was his assistant. They took turns observing the heavens. That’s how Maria discovered her comet, in 1702.
By 1710, she was publishing under her own name. She wrote about aurorae, and about prominent sky events. That made her one of the best-known astronomers in Europe.
When her husband died, she applied for his position. But the Royal Academy didn\’t want to set a precedent by hiring a woman. So she assisted other astronomers.
Kirch also taught astronomy to her children. And in 1716, her son was appointed to a post with the Berlin Observatory. Kirch and her daughters became his assistants.
But the Royal Berlin Academy of Sciences complained that she was too prominent in observatory life. When she refused to tone it down, she was expelled from her observatory quarters — ending her career in astronomy.
Script by Damond Benningfield