The daughter of a Lutheran pastor, Maria Winkelmann was educated by her father and uncle, who felt that she deserved the same education as men. She studied under Christopher Arnold, a “peasant astronomer,” and through him she met Gottfried Kirch, 30 years her senior, whom she married in 1692. He had been the assistant of the Polish astronomer Hevelius and was a famous astronomer himself. Their marriage allowed Winkelmann to satisfy her taste for astronomy by becoming her husband’s assistant. Their four children — including three girls — were to become astronomers themselves.
In spring 1702, Winkelmann observed a comet (C/1702 H1), a discovery that was attributed to her husband. Various excuses were given for this. Maria could not have been published in the main journal of the time, the Acta eruditorum, because she did not know Latin, or that her husband had feared the ridicule. He recognized the trickery in 1710. But the comet still was not named for her. She was recognized for astronomical works on polar aurorae and on the conjunction of the Sun with Saturn and Venus.
At her husband’s death in 1710, she intended to succeed him as astronomer at the Prussian Academy of Sciences, claiming to have taken charge of his work during his fatal illness. Despite the support of its first president, Leibniz, the Academy gave her no income and appointed a man of little experience.
Despite these difficulties, which she attributed to her sex, she continued to work and publish. In 1712, she joined the observatory of a rich amateur, Bernhard Friedrich, Baron von Krosigk. After his death in 1714, she returned to Berlin where her son Christfried had become director of the observatory of the Royal Academy of Sciences. Maria Winkelmann and her daughter Christine were appointed his assistants. Some scholars claimed that she took too much space, so she retired and left her home at the Observatory shortly before her death in 1720. Alphonse of Vignoles, on behalf of the Academy, honored her contributions to astronomy — but not until after her death.