Saturday, March 6, 2021

Unforgotten Sisters: Early History of Women Astronomers

Most readers will recognize Hypatia of Alexandria and Hildegard von Bingen. However, En-Hedu-Anna of Babylon, Theano the Pythagorean, and Wang Zhenyi of 18th century China will likely be among the many newly met. Sophie Brahe and Elizabetha Hevelius will be known for their family names, though in our common histories, they have been eclipsed by the men in their lives. It remains true that their own accomplishments shine apart. That is also true of Caroline Herschel. It depends on who writes the histories and how diligently the reader follows the threads of fact. 


A previous version of this article appeared in the April 2020 issue of Sidereal Times of the Austin Astronomical Society. It is available here:

The Unforgotten Sisters: 
Female Astronomers and Scientists 
Before Caroline Herschel
by Gabriella Bernardi 
(Springer Praxis, 2016, 179 pages

Contrary to the title, Caroline Herschel herself is among the 25 astronomers whose lives are outlined. Caroline Herschel and Mary Somerville were both inducted as honorary members of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1836. Thus, Somerville (1780-1872), who also is chronicled here, was a younger contemporary rather than living “before” Herschel (1750 to 1848). Even so, here are 25 women who worked in astronomy before the modern era. Each chapter includes a summary of achievements, commentaries about the woman and her work from her own society, and some “curious facts” about them. 


The author puts forward Christine Kirch as the first woman to be a professional astronomer. Starting in 1776, she was paid 400 thalers a year by the Berlin Academy of Prussia. Christine Kirch was the daughter of Gottried Kirch and Maria-Margaretha Winkelmann-Kirch. Winkelmann-Kirch has her own entry. She worked and socialized among astronomers, including Christoph Arnold Sommerfeld, before meeting Gottfried Kirch. She was his third wife and 30 years his junior. Their children were raised in the family business. Following the death of her husband, Winkelmann-Kirch was offered a post in Saint Petersburg after showing sunspots and other phenomena to the Tsar, but she refused because her son, Christfried, accepted a post at the Berlin Observatory. She died three years later. 


According to the publisher’s website, the title of the book is a turn on a line from a poem by Siv Cedering. The poem is an imaginary letter from Caroline Herschel; and you can find it on the Space Telescope Science Institute website under the tab for “STScI Research” which will take you to their Caroline Herschel Visitor Program. The program brings scientists to “act as mentors to junior scientists at the institute, especially women and other underrepresented groups.” I found the website to have been newly rebuilt. 


is more direct. 

The poem begins: 

“William is away, and I am minding
the heavens. I have discovered
eight new comets and three nebulae
never before seen by man…”


This book is a good a resource. Knowing for whom to search, the histories can follow more easily. However, it is replete with small problems in grammar, style, and typography. In one subhead the “Curious Facts” are “Curios.” Other subheads appear as “Curiosity” without actually showing this to be an attribute of the astronomer herself. Writing about the sisters Christine Kirch and Margarethe Kirch, Bernardi calls Christine the eldest of the two. Clearly, English was not the author’s first language; and the editors at Springer let a lot go by. 


For modern history, probably the best portal is the Astrophysical Data System of the Harvard at There are archived citations and full text of journal articles and internal reports by Williamina Fleming, Annie Jump Cannon, and many less generally known.




The Scientific Method 

Astronomical Symbols on Ancient and Medieval Coins 


When Old Technologies Were New 


No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.