Inspiring STEM Women: Caroline Herschel

Caroline Herschel was an accomplished German astronomer who discovered several comets including comet 35-/Herschel-Rigollet. She was born in 1750 and when she was ten years old she became ill with typhus which stunted her growth to around 4ft 3 inches. As a result, her mother assumed she would never find a husband and instead of giving her an education, trained her in housework with the intention of her becoming a servant. Despite this, her father continued to teach her in secret along with her brother, William.

After her father died, William went to live in Bath in England with the intention of becoming a composer. He asked Caroline to join him in 1772 and from there she ran William’s household and trained to become a singer to perform in his concerts and oratorios. She was a vocalist held in high regard and was offered an engagement at the Birmingham festival, but she refused to sing for anyone other than her brother.

William switched his interests to astronomy and Caroline switched with him, before making significant contributions of her own in the field. Caroline did not get on well with any local people in Bath and so spent most of her time working with her brother. During this time she organised and condensed his observations as well as maintaining microscope equipment and experimenting with mirrors in order to obtain the most effective use of light. In 1871 William discovered the plant Uranus and Caroline was also given credit for this discovery. In 1782 when William was appointed as the Kings Astronomer Caroline assisted him in building his famous 40-foot focal length microscope.

Significant enough was her contribution that the state began to pay her to assist William in his studies. She was the first woman to receive a salary for her services to science and the first woman to be given full recognition as an astronomer.  Around 1882 William encouraged her to carry out her own studies. This led to many of her successes, such as her discovery of M110 (NGC 205), the second companion of the Andromeda Galaxy. She also studied algebra to help her to measure astronomical distances.  When her brother married in 1788 however Caroline was moved out of the main house and made to sleep in external lodgings. She still worked with her brother but did not have the same freedom to use the equipment and power over running the house as she had before. In addition to this William, his wife and his son spent a fair amount of time travelling. Although now able to spend less time with her brother who became increasingly disinterested with Astronomy, Caroline began to embark on more solo projects and she made many astounding discoveries of her own in this time period. Some of her successes included discovering eight comets (gaining unquestioned priority as discoverer of five of the comets) and the rediscovery of Comet Encke in 1795.

When her brother died in 1822, she was devastated and moved back home to Germany. On her brother’s advice Caroline had started cross examining a star catalogue published by Joh Flamsteed and through continued and extensive study she created the Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars (published by the Royal Society 1798). The catalogue contained an index of every star observed by Flamsteed, errors she had discovered and more than 560 stars that he hadn’t included. She continued to verify her brother’s work following his death, assisting her nephew John Herschel. At one point she arranged two and a half thousand nebulae into zones of similar polar distances so that John could re-examine them systematically.

In 1828 Herschel was awarded the Gold Medal by the Royal Astronomical Society, a medal that would not be awarded to another woman until 1996. In 1835 she was elected as an Honorary Member by the Royal Astronomical Society as one of the first two women to ever hold this position. She was also elected as an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. In 1846 she was awarded a Gold Medal for Science by the Kind of Prussia before she died in 1848, at 97 years old. In 1888 an asteroid ‘281 Lucretia’ was named after her and later on the crater ‘C. Herschel’ on the moon was named after her also.

C. Herschel crater

Written by Sophie Chadwick 



Posted on Monday Apr 11