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The 17th-Century Lady Astronomer Who Took Measure of the Stars

Astronomer Maria Cunitz might not be such an anomaly, were other women given the same educational opportunities

Cunitz was among the few who saw the truth in Johannes Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, which stated that planets moved in elliptical orbits around the sun. Here, a concept drawing of the Earth and moon in orbit around the sun. (MasPix / Alamy)
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Urania Propitia is a remarkable volume for many reasons. Published in 1650, this work of astronomy demonstrates a command of high-level mathematics and astronomical calculation. It also reveals a deep understanding of Keplerian astronomy; its author both simplified and corrected Kepler's math for locating planetary positions. Finally, the book was written in German as well as Latin, which helped to both establish German as a language of science and make the tables accessible outside of the university.

But Urania Propitia lays claim to yet another impressive quality: It was written by a woman. This fact took me by surprise in 2012, when I was touring the History of Science Collections upon arriving at the University of Oklahoma for my graduate studies in the History of Science. In a long line of books written by famous men, I was taken aback to see one penned by an obscure woman: an astronomer named Maria Cunitz.

I remember thinking: “A woman did that.”

My surprise stemmed not from my disbelief that women were and are capable of such work, but during the time that Cunitz was working on Urania Propitia, few women were welcomed into the upper echelons of natural philosophy, medicine, astronomy and mathematics. “The general cultural atmosphere certainly wasn’t conducive to educated women,” says historian of science Marilyn Ogilvie, co-author and editor of The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives from Ancient Times to the Mid-20th Century.

Ogilvie points to influential French philosopher Michel de Montaigne as one example of the pervasive beliefs about women’s role during this time period. In his essay collection Of the Education of Children, Ogilvie says that “[h]e never mentions girls...but when he speaks of women he speaks of [them] as ‘pretty animals.’ They should be kept so by being taught ‘those games and bodily exercises which are best calculated to set off their beauty.’” These types of beliefs kept women out of higher education and perpetuated myths about women’s capabilities.

“Certainly the culture did not encourage ‘scientific women’ with attitudes like this,” says Ogilvie.

This fact makes Cunitz’s work all the more significant. In his article “Urania Propitia, the Adaption of the Rudolphine Tables by Maria Cunitz,” historian of science N. M. Swerdlow claims Urania Propitia to be the “earliest surviving scientific work by a woman on the highest technical level of its age, for it purpose was to provide solutions to difficulties in the most advanced science of the age…” During my tour, the Collections’ curator, Kerry Magruder, described her as one of the most accomplished astronomers of her century.

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Title page of the Urania propitia by Maria Cunitz, 1650. (Wikimedia Commons)

Maria Cunitz was born between 1600 and 1610 (the exact date remains unknown) in Silesia. She had the good fortune of being the child of two educated parents who were interested in her upbringing: Maria Schultz and physician Henrich Cunitz. As a woman, Cunitz was denied a formal education, so she received much of her education from her father.

“[i]f a woman was to be a scientist (or natural philosopher) of any type, it was helpful to have a male relative ... take interest in her education,” Olgivie says. “I wouldn’t say that Cunitz’s relationship with her father was unusual, but it certainly was not common.”

With her father’s guidance—and later her husband’s—Cunitz mastered the supposedly masculine fields of mathematics and astronomy as well as the traditional feminine skills of music, art and literature. She was fluent in seven languages—German, Latin, Polish, Italian, French, Hebrew and Greek—which would prove key to her achievements in astronomy.

Her education was expansive and ongoing, punctuated by concerns of religious discrimination. In 1629, Cunitz and her Protestant family fled to Liegnitz to escape Ferdinand II’s Catholic persecution of Protestants. In Liegnitz, she met and married physician Elias von Löwen, with whom she continued her studies in mathematics and astronomy. In the midst of the Thirty Years War, however, Cunitz was forced once again to flee. She and her husband settled in Pitschen, Poland, and it was here that Cunitz composed her magnum opus, Urania Propitia.

In 1609, German astronomer Johannes Kepler published Astronomia Nova, which laid the groundwork for the revolution that would come to be known as Keplerian astronomy. But at the time, few astronomers embraced his three laws: that planets move in elliptical orbits with the sun as the foci, that the center of the sun and the center of a planet sweep out equal area in equal intervals of time, and that the amount of time a planet takes to orbit is directly related to its distance from the sun.

Cunitz was one of the few that saw the truth in Kepler’s laws of planetary motion; even Galileo did not accept Kepler’s law of ellipses. However, Cunitz found flaws in Kepler’s 1627 Rudolphine Tables, a catalogue of stars and planetary tables with complex directions for calculating planetary positions. She set out to correct and simplify Kepler’s calculations by removing logarithms. Cunitz finished her first and second tables in 1643 and the third in 1645.

Published in 1650 at her and her husband’s own financial expense, Urania Propitia was longer than Kepler’s original Rudolphine Tables at 286 pages. She published the book in both Latin and the vernacular German, which made it an accessible work of astronomy outside of university walls and helped to establish German as a scientific language. Ogilvie says that “[a]though her contributions to astronomy weren’t new theoretically, she, by her simplification of Kepler’s tables demonstrated that she was a competent mathematician and astronomer.”

One of the more curious aspects to Urania Propitia is husband Elias’s contribution to the book. During this time period, it was quite unusual for a woman to publish such a work on her own, and Ogilvie points out that there were “many other cases (e.g. Marie Lavoisier) where a wife certainly was a major contributor to the work where she didn’t get credit.”

Yet in the book, Elias writes in Latin that he had no part in producing the text or preparing the tables. He adds that although he instructed his wife in calculating planetary movement with advanced mathematics, she mastered it and prepared the new tables on her own. In Swerdlow’s reading of Elias’s Latin, the history of Cunitz’s education was laid out in detail “lest anyone falsely think the work perhaps not of a woman, pretending to be of a woman, and only thrust upon the world under the name of a woman.”

Urania Propitia gained Cunitz recognition across Europe and brought her into correspondence with other prominent European astronomers of her day, like Pierre Gassendi and Johannes Hevelius. Sadly, the majority of her letters have been lost, consumed by a fire in Pitschen in 1656. What letters remain are kept at the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek in Vienna.

Cunitz died on August 22, 1664. Urania Propitia remains the only work she published. But because Urania Propitia was such a singular accomplishment and Cunitz was as proficient in mathematics and astronomy as any man of her age, her reputation continued after her death; She became known as Silesia Pallas, or Athena of Silesia.

She has also received more modern recognition as well. In 1960, a minor planet was named Mariacunitia in her honor by R. H. van Gent, and later, in 1973 when Richard Goldstein and his team at JPL discovered Venus to be covered in craters, Cunitz Crater received her name. 

In a time when culture actively worked against women entering education and science, Maria Cunitz successfully made an inroad for herself. Her intellect was cultivated and encouraged by her father and husband, a privilege few girls and women would have been afforded. Though Cunitz’s story is not without struggle, one cannot help but wonder how many more women could have done the same if granted the opportunities afforded to Cunitz. 

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