Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/February 1886/Women in Astronomy



THERE have been women famous in all the departments of science and art, and many have shown in astronomical studies talents not usually made manifest in their sex. To begin with ancient times, several women whose names have come down to posterity made themselves famous in the centuries before the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Among them, the principal one who derived her title to glory from the study of the sciences was Hypatia, daughter of Theon, of the school of Alexandria, who is nevertheless better known by her philosophical opinions than by her scientific labors. She lectured for many years at Alexandria, before numerous and intelligent audiences, on the Neoplatonic doctrines; but she is also known as the author of an astronomical table which has not come down to us. Wolf relates, in his "History of Astronomy," that she studied mathematics and astronomy with such success that she was given a professorial chair, whence she explained the works of Apollonius and Diophantus.

Skipping the ages of darkness and the beginning of the modern epoch, we find our attention fixed in the latter part of the seventeenth century upon the name of the family of Kirch—a name important in many respects. Marie Marguerite Kirch was born at Panitzch, near Leipsic, on the 25th of February, 1670. Her maiden name was Winckelmann, but she married the Berlin astronomer Godefroid Kirch, and became also his scientific companion. She assisted him in his calculations and observations, and in 1702 discovered a comet. Even after the death of her husband in 1710 she did not cease to devote herself entirely to astronomical science; and we have a considerable book which she wrote in 1712, in anticipation of the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that was to take place in 1713. The conjunctions of the planets now only excite curiosity, and are of no particular interest to astronomers. But the case was different in the times when astronomy was mixed up with astrology, and a very capricious, occult influence over earthly fates was attributed to such especial positions of the stars. With the progress of theoretical astronomy, which showed that these conjunctions were regular events, subject to periodic laws, the ideas on this subject were modified, and the writers upon the phenomena took the pains to notify the public, by the titles of their works, that they had nothing in common with the astrologers. Marguerite Kirch's book consisted wholly of astronomical calculations—to the honor, says Bach, of the woman and her age.

The daughters of Madame Kirch continued to occupy themselves with astronomy after the death of their mother, and made the calculations, for the Academy of Sciences of Berlin, of the "Ephemeris" and the "Almanac" which were sources of revenue to that learned body. In the same period a number of French and Italian astronomers had female collaborators in their own families. Celsius, the celebrated professor at Upsala, and a pupil of Kirch the son, was entertained, while passing through Paris to Bologna, by De l'Isle, whose sister was devoting herself to astronomy. Reaching Italy, he found likewise that his new master, Manfredi, had two learned sisters, engaged, like their brother, in the study of the stars. This caused Celsius to say, in a letter to Kirch: "I begin to believe that it is fated for all the astronomers whom I have had the honor of becoming acquainted with during my journey to have learned sisters; I have a sister, too, but not a very learned lady. To keep up the coincidence, we must make an astronomer of her."

Other women, whose names are less well known, wrote on astronomy during the seventeenth century. We may cite Maria Cunitz, daughter of a Silesian doctor, who published astronomical tables in 1650; Jeanne Dumé, who in 1650 wrote a book defending the Copernican system against "scientific" attacks upon it. Of more modern date was Madame Gabrielle Emilie de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet, who was for fifteen years the constant friend of Voltaire, and in her retreat at Cirey devoted her whole life to the sciences. She it was who first made known to France, then devoted to scientific Cartesianism and the doctrine of elementary vortices, the masterly work of Newton. This was a title to glory which might have made the fortune of more than one scientific man, and it fell upon a woman. Mademoiselle de Breteuil had received a very careful education, but her natural taste for study and serious occupations did not prevent her from shining brilliantly in the society of the courts of the Regency for some years after her marriage with M. du Châtelet. One of the best evidences of her genius that we have is in the bearing toward her of Voltaire, who had no respect for any but mental gifts. He had returned from Great Britain full of enthusiasm for English science and philosophy, and occupied with the dream of making Newton known to his countrymen and dethroning Descartes at the Academy. It may appear singular that he selected Madame du Châtelet for this work; but the choice was not extraordinary after all. She had already made some progress in mathematical studies under the direction of Maupertuis and Clairaut, and Voltaire was looking for the assistance he needed to some one outside of the official scientific circle. The translation of Newton's "Principia" would be the best means of making known in France the great English geometrician and the admirable simplicity which his theory of attraction lent to the study of the movements of the stars. This work Madame du Châtelet did well. But she did more than make a simple translation. The algebraic commentary which follows the translation is in large part the work of this lady, although it was composed under the direction of Clairaut and revised by him. "We have witnessed two prodigies," said Voltaire in his historical introduction to the "Principia"—"one that Newton should have composed this work, and the other that a woman should have translated and elucidated it." Leaving out the exaggeration natural in such a statement, there is still a great deal of truth in it. More than ordinary mathematical knowledge was necessary even to make known a work like Newton's immortal treatise, and still more to add explanatory comments to it. This, however, was not Madame du Châtelet's first scientific work, for she had previously written for her son "The Institutions of Physics," a book imbued with the Leibnitzian philosophy.

As may readily be imagined, Madame du Châtelet was likely to find more enemies than aids among the women of the light and frivolous society of her day. Fortunately, she was indifferent to criticism, else she would have suffered the pain of a hundred deaths.

The most distinguished of all woman-astronomers was Caroline Herschel, the story of whose life, already fully told in this journal (see "Popular Science Monthly," April and May, 1876), is familiar to our readers, and needs not to be repeated.

Madame Rümker, wife of the former director of the observatory of Hamburg, and his constant aid, discovered a comet on the 11th of October, 1847—the first comet discovered by a woman since Caroline Herschel had announced the last of her eight, fifty-two years before. [M. Lagrange has curiously omitted to mention the American woman-astronomer, Maria Mitchell, who is entitled to the place among discovers of comets which he here gives to Madame Rümker. She discovered a telescopic comet on the 1st day of October, 1847—ten days before Madame Rümker's discovery—in recognition of which she was given a gold medal by the King of Denmark. She has also devoted much attention to the examination of nebulæ, and has been employed in observations connected with the Coast Survey and in compiling the "Nautical Almanac." Her work has hardly been inferior to that of any of the women mentioned by M. Lagrange.—Ed. Popular Science Monthly.]

Another lady, who left very distinct traces of her work in astronomical science, was Madame Scarpellini, whom Italy claims as one of the children that have done her the most honor, and to whose memory a statue has recently been erected.

Catherine Scarpellini was born at Foligno on the 29th of October, 1808, and was a niece of the astronomer Feliciano Scarpellini, founder of the Capitoline Observatory, restorer of the Academia dei Lynceii, and professor in the two universities of Rome. Her attention was directed to scientific studies by her early training, with which her tastes fully agreed. Among her titles to fame we may recount that she organized the Metcorologico-ozonometric Station of the Capitol, and edited its monthly bulletin; she was one of the most active collaborators in the "Scientific Correspondence" of Rome; and, like Caroline Herschel, Madame Rümker, and Miss Mitchell, she discovered a comet on the night of the 1st of April, 1854. At a time when the subject of shooting-stars was under lively discussion she prepared the first catalogue of the meteors observed in Italy, and was the sole observer at Home of the great shower of 1866. She also left valuable studies on the probable influence of the moon on earthquakes—a work which brought her distinctions from the Society of Naturalists of Moscow, the Geological Institute of Vienna, and other scientific bodies. Many learned societies made her an honorary member, and the Italian Government, in 1872, decreed to her a gold medal for her statistical labors. With all this she was a good mother and a true woman.

We mention a few more names: Madame Hortense Lepante, wife of the horologist of the same name, who calculated a comet with Lalande; Miss Ashley, of our own time, who has so intelligently studied the surface of the moon, and whose numerous labors are registered in the "Selenographical Journal"; and Miss Pogson, who is directing an observatory at Madras. Several young women are employed as calculators at the Observatory of Harvard College, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

I can not close my article without giving grateful testimony to those women who, without having contributed directly to the advancement of astronomy, have sustained their husbands or brothers during their work with incessant devotion. This is a beautiful part reserved for the astronomer's wife or sister, and many women have known how to fulfill it with honor.

We recall with an emotion of gratitude the name of Mrs. Asaph Hall, whose persevering energy supported her husband when, despairing of success, he was on the point of abandoning the search for the satellites of Mars, With her encouragement, after long and painful watches, Mr. Hall returned once again to his investigations in a final effort, which was crowned with a most brilliant success. I must also, with all the friends of science, give a tribute of homage to Madame Janssen, who has exiled herself several times to the ends of the earth, and accepted the privations of the hardest kind of life, to follow her husband in his numerous astronomical voyages.

Honor, then, to all these ladies and fellow-workers, who are pleading or have pleaded more emphatically than the strongest speeches of philanthropists in favor of the claims of their sex. They have proved that when one will one can; and that proverb is perhaps the best conclusion that can be drawn from our story.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from Ciel et Terre.