Daughters of Urania

This year one is supposed to blog about STEM women who inspired one to mark Ada Lovelace Day but in all honesty I can’t fulfill that requirement so instead I’m going to stick to that which I do best and blog about the history of astronomy in the Early Modern Period. Given that the muse of astronomy, Urania, was a woman it is somewhat ironic that astronomy was traditional considered to be a career exclusively for men however some notable female astronomers emerged in Europe in the course of the 17th century and I shall briefly introduce them here.

My first daughter of Urania is the Silesian astronomer Maria Cunitz (1610 – 1664). A woman of great intelligence, she spoke seven languages and was an accomplished poet, musician and painter, she had the good fortune to be educated in science and medicine by her father. Her second marriage was to an astronomer her  (I done screwed up again!) who taught her this discipline and then encouraged and supported her independent investigations. In 1650 she published her Urania propitia, which was bilingual, Latin and German, and contained improved versions of Kepler’s Rudolphine Tables as well as an improved and simplified solution of the so-called Kepler’s Problem. This problem was how to determine the position of a planet at a given point in time on its elliptical orbit; not a simple problem to solve especially before the invention of analysis. Her book placed Cunitz in the highest ranks of European astronomers. What else she might have or did achieve we will never know as she lost all of her scientific work in a disastrous fire in 1655. Cunitz sets the mold for our other daughters of Urania because  although he achievements were her own they were only made possible through the active support of her father and her husband allowing her to function against the social norms of the times.

Our second daughter of Urania was Elisabeth Koopman Hevelius (1647 – 1693) an inhabitant of Danzig. Elisabeth was the second wife of Johannes Hevelius, the leading European observational astronomer of the age, whom she married when she was only 16 and he already 52. As well as becoming his wife she became his observational assistant and eventually the manager of his observatory. After his death she completed and published two of his works including the results of their joint stellar observations one of the most important star catalogues of all times.

Our third daughter of Urania is another Maria the German astronomer Maria Kirch (1670 – 1720). Like Cunitz, Kirk was original educated by her father and her uncle who believed that girls should receive the same education as boys. From them she learnt mathematics and astronomy going on to study with and work together with the amateur astronomer Christoph Arnold. Through Arnold she got to know the astronomer Gottfried Kirch and despite the fact that he was 30 years older than her they married. Kirch was official astronomer of the Berlin Royal Academy of Science and her and Maria ran the Academy’s observatory together for many years. In 1702 she became the first woman to discover a comet but the credit for the discovery was given to her husband. When Gottfried died in 1710 Maria applied for his position arguing correctly that she had done half of the work in the past. Despite her having published independently and having an excellent reputation as well as the active support of Leibniz the Academy refused to award her the post. She worked in various other observatories until 1717 when her son was appointed to his fathers post, Maria once again becoming the assistant. Despite having more than proved her equality to any male astronomer Maria never really received the recognition she deserved.

Our last daughter of Urania was the daughter of the Nürnberger engraver and astronomer Georg Christoph Eimart, Maria Clara (1676 – 1707). Maria’s father founded the first European public observatory in Nürnberg in 1678. Like the others Maria was educated by her father in painting, engraving, French and mathematics and developed an interest for her father’s astronomy. Maria became an assistant at the observatory, which was bought by the City of Nürnberg after her father’s death in 1705. Johannes Müller another of her father’s assistants became the new director and the two of them married in 1706. Unfortunately Maria died in childbirth in the following year. Maria was an efficient and independent observational astronomer who produced about 250 sketches of the moon between 1693 and 1698 and is considered to be the only woman of note in the history of selenography, to give lunar cartography its correct name.

In the 17th century these four women proved that the daughters of Urania were more than equal to her sons.


Filed under History of Astronomy

16 responses to “Daughters of Urania

  1. Pingback: Daughters of Urania | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Pingback: Early Modern Notes » Ada Lovelace Day: Women in the history of science, medicine and technology

  3. Jim Cliborn

    2nd paragraph, fifth line, check out who taught who. Best regards, Jim

    • All of the sources that I can find agree that Cunitz was taught astronomy by her second husband, if you disagree then make a statement of fact instead of insinuations and give a source for your claims.

      • I apologies for misunderstanding your comment Mr Cliborn. This is proof positive that one shouldn’t proofread ones own writing. Even after your hint I reread the passage and still didn’t see the mistake; not just stupid but blind as well 😉

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  5. Jeb

    Thony with the greatest respect I would advise you to read the line Jim has taken the time to point out and reflect for a few minutes.

  6. Jeb

    I note you have ignored my remark.

    “Her second marriage was to an astronomer her taught this discipline”

    It is not you’re historical accuracy or indeed the typo that needs reflection.

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