Caroline Lucretia Herschel was an extraordinary woman in many ways. The fact that she accomplished so much in the 18th and 19th centuries makes all of it even more impressive. It makes me wonder what she might have accomplished in an age more receptive to scientific advancement and successful women. What she did accomplish is nothing short of astonishing.
Born in Hannover, Germany in 1750, she overcame much to become a professional astronomer. She was the 5th of 6th children, and born a girl in an age where she would always be a second-class citizen at best. She survived smallpox and typhus, and was disfigured by the former and had her growth badly stunted by the latter. Her father, a military musician, gave her a basic education in math and music, but her mother did not approve. Her mother planned for her to become a household maid, assuming no one would want to marry her. Little did she know her daughter would end up a famous, incredibly successful astronomer instead, widely accepted in scientific and high-class social circles alike.
The Seven Years’ War drove her older brother William to England, and many years later she joined him there as his housekeeper. William was an organist and choir master, and Caroline became a well known professional singer.
William’s hobby of astronomy and telescope making soon became his career as he gained more success there than he had in music. Caroline became his apprentice in telescope making, and, despite no formal training, learned complicated mathematics to help him develop new approaches to astronomy.
In 1781, William Herschel discovered Uranus, and a year later became royal astronomer to King George VII and was granted knighthood. Caroline went with William to continue as his assistant, but also began to branch out on her own. She is credited with discovering three nebulae in 1783 and a comet in 1786. In recognition of her own accomplishments, King George started paying her a salary as well, in the official capacity of William’s assistant – this was the first recorded time a woman was paid for a scientific position.
After William married in 1788, Caroline was able to do even more independent work, finding seven more comets and revamping a star catalog. After her brother died in 1822, Caroline went back to Hannover and finished his job of cataloguing 2500 nebulae.
In 1828, Caroline was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, something that would not be awarded to another woman until 1996. And she was accepted as an honorary member into the British Royal Society in 1835, along with Mary Somerville. Sadly, they could not be regular members as women. In 1838 she was invited into the Irish Royal Society, and the King of Prussia gave her the Gold Medal for Science in 1846.
If you’ve been following all these dates, she worked in astronomy from her twenties up until her death at age 98 in 1848. This small, disfigured woman with no formal education made a tremendous impact on the science of astronomy. She blazed trails for women and science, and lived longer than just about anyone in that period. Her brother, Sir William Herschel, may be much more well-known, but I have to wonder what more she could have done with more schooling, earlier access to scientific peers to work and discuss with, and the access to so many things granted to men in that era.
This is, once again, one of the reasons for this blog – if we can inspire and educate people at a young age, give them opportunities to succeed and clear away the kind of barriers that Caroline Herschel faced, just imagine what the children of this country could do.