Women You Missed in History Class: Caroline Herschel

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Caroline Herschel (1750-1848)

One of the greatest astronomers in history spent virtually her entire career in the shadow of her older brother.  And sure, her brother discovered the planet Uranus, and that’s a pretty big deal, but that doesn’t excuse Caroline Herschel’s erasure from history.  Herschel was born in Hanover, Germany on March 16, 1750.  Her father was an oboist, and the entire Herschel family inherited his musical inclination.  When Caroline was 10, she fell ill with typhus, which stunted her growth and left her blind in her left eye.  As an adult, she stood only 4’3″.  Her mother assumed she would never get married, and believed she should prepare for a life as a house servant, so young Caroline was tasked with much of the household upkeep.  Her father attempted to educate her at home in between chores, but Caroline only received a cursory education.  She could read, write, and do basic arithmetic, but that was about it.  She never even finished learning her multiplication tables.

After the death of her father in 1772, Herschel moved to Bath, England to live with her brother William.  William was 12 years her senior, and had moved to England to work as a music teacher and church organist.  Herschel trained as a singer and began singing in William’s church.  William organized several concerts, and Caroline quickly became his principal soloist.  She acquired a reputation as a talented vocalist and was offered several singing engagements.  In the late 1770s, William began to shift his focus from music to astronomy.  He organized fewer and fewer concerts, and since Caroline refused to sing for any conductor but William, her music career began to decline as well.  Caroline and William gave their last performance in 1782, at which point William became an astronomer in the court of King George III, giving up music and pursuing astronomy full time.  Caroline, who was extremely devoted to her brother, followed him in this new pursuit.  She started out just polishing telescope lenses and recording William’s observations, but as William taught her more about astronomy, she began doing some work of her own.

What started out as just helping her brother became a lifelong passion for Herschel.  William eventually built her a telescope of her own so she could search the night sky.  On August 1, 1786, Herschel noticed an object traveling through the sky.  The next night, it was there again, and she began studying its path.  She informed William and several other astronomers of what she had found.  As it turned out, Herschel had just become the first woman to discover a comet.  After that discovery, her scientific contributions began to get noticed.  In 1787, King George III officially employed her as William’s assistant and paid her a salary of 50 pounds a year.  She was the first British woman to be paid for her contributions to science.  Between 1786 and 1797, Herschel discovered eight comets.  The 35P/Herschel-Rigollet comet is named after her.  In 1828, the Royal Astronomical Society awarded her its Gold Medal for her work producing a catalog of nebulae.  She was the first woman to win the award, and it would not be given to another woman until Vera Rubin in 1996.

By the time of her death in 1848 at the age of 97, Herschel had discovered or contributed to the discovery of over 2000 celestial objects.  She lived long enough to see her work earn the recognition it deserved: By the time of her death, she was one of the most well-known and respected astronomers in Europe.  She had been awarded several medals and was the first woman elected as an Honorary Member of the Royal Astronomical Society.  Today, however, she is not nearly as well known as she should be.  Although an asteroid, several comets, and a crater on the moon all bear her name, the name Caroline Herschel should be one that we all know and remember every time we look up at the night sky.

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