She was the first woman to discover a comet, receive a salary as a full-time scientist, hold a government office in England, publish in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, receive a Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, and be named a honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society. A trailblazer and a brilliant Astronomer, Herschel made a name for herself recording the telescope observations of her brother. She also made a great deal of her own discoveries. Let’s look at her biography for inspiration, and to understand what it took to be appreciated as a woman in science a couple hundred years ago.
Caroline Herschel was born in the German city Hanover in 1750, to a family of 10. Her family was very musical, as her father was a self-taught oboist. When she was 10, she caught typhus, which stumped her growth and damaging her left eye. Her mother thought that she would never marry and that it would be best to train her as a servant, despite her father’s wishes to educate her. He tutored her in his free time during the absence of the mother. She was briefly allowed to learn dress-making from the neighbour, although this was often interrupted with loads of chores. She also was prevented from learning advanced French and needlework, to prevent her from becoming a governess. So, right off the bat she faced tremendous obstacles in her education.
After her father’s death, she decided to join her musical brother William in Bath, England as a soprano singer in 1772. She ran William’s household and in her free time finally was able to learn arithmetic, English, harpsichord and dance. She performed alongside William at many festivals, nonetheless she began getting replaced by other musicians as William became more focused on astronomy. She also supported his efforts in this field. When William began developing his own lenses to improve his astronomical observations, she fed and read to him. In 1781 William discovered Uranus, which brought him to fame, but Caroline remained largely unacknowledged. She claimed to have felt like his dog at the time.
When William was developing his high precision telescopes, she meticulously polished the mirrors. She learned how to organise his observations and catalogued them with speed and accuracy. Eventually, she got tired of being just an assistant and decided to start her own catalogue, where she recorded her observations. In February 1783, she made her first discovery of a nebula. She then discovered a variety of comets and other objects, With her brother, they discovered a total of 2400 astronomical objects.
Her catalogue of observations was published in The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society under William’s name, which listed 500 new Nebulae. She then expanded on the catalogue later in her life. After William’s death in 1822, she moved back to Hanover to continue her observations and catalogue, but this was difficult due to the architecture of the city. She was awarded the Gold medal of the Royal Society for her work in 1828. She introduced her nephew to astronomy, and he would continue her work and expanding the catalogue. Herschel remained active and healthy in her old age, dying peacefully in 1848.
Her story is of inspiring perseverance in fighting stereotypes and wanting to pursue an education, despite her mother’s attempts to make her into a house servant. She paved the way for many other women to pursue a career in STEM. We should remember her both for her discoveries, but also for the circumstances she conducted them in.
Caroline Herschel. (n.d.). Maths History. https://mathshistory.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Herschel_Caroline/
Caroline Herschel | Biography, Discoveries, & Facts. (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Caroline-Lucretia-Herschel
Tillman, N. T. (2012, September 4). Caroline Herschel Biography. Space.Com. https://www.space.com/17439-caroline-herschel.html
Wikipedia contributors. (2021). Caroline Herschel. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caroline_Herschel
Winterburn, E. (2015). Learned modesty and the first lady’s comet: a commentary on Caroline Herschel (1787) ‘An account of a new comet.’ Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 373(2039), 20140210. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsta.2014.0210