The Lioness Project: Caroline Herschel

Eek! I’ve missed a few weeks! Hopefully this week’s Lioness is worth the wait. Hers is a true Cinderella story: forced by her mother to forego education in favor of housework, she went on to become first an acclaimed performer, and then the first professional female astronomer in history.

“I undertook with pleasure what others might have thought a hardship.”
—Caroline Herschel

Caroline Herschel

Caroline Herschel was born in 1750, in Germany. At the age of ten, Caroline caught typhus, which damaged her left eye and stunted her growth (her adult height was 4’3″). Her mother, certain that Caroline’s condition meant she would never marry, determined she was only fit to be a servant. She made her daughter do all of the housework, and refused to allow her an education. Her father secretly educated her alongside her brothers, when her mother wasn’t around.

When she was twenty-two, her brothers invited her to come to stay with them in Bath, England, where her brother William taught and performed music. Though her mother did not want to let her go, William intervened, and Caroline was free at last. In Bath, William trained her as a soprano and she kept house for him. She became an accomplished soloist, and was offered leading roles at other opera houses, but she did not like to be directed by anyone but her brother. When William’s interests began to turn from music to astronomy, she became his assistant, and eventually an acclaimed astronomer in her own right.

Together they learned to build telescopes, and to fashion the mirrors and lenses themselves. Initially, much of Caroline’s astronomical work consisted of “sweeping the skies” for anything interesting. One night in 1783, she discovered a previously unrecorded nebula, as well as a dwarf elliptical galaxy. While searching for comets, Caroline became dissatisfied with the existing astronomical catalogues, which were organized by constellation; she began to compile her own based on polar distance instead.

In 1786, she discovered her first comet, becoming the first woman recorded to have done so. In 1787, King George III awarded her an annual salary for her work, making her the first paid female astronomer, and the first woman in England to be awarded a government position. Her new astronomical catalogue, the Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars, was published by the Royal Society in 1798. It included an index of every observation of every previously recorded star, a list of errata, more than 560 previously unknown stars. When William married in 1788, Caroline moved into her own lodgings and though they continued to work together, during this time she also began to gain recognition as a scientist in her own right. After his death, she returned to Germany and expanded the catalogue with her nephew, astronomer John Herschel, and it was published as the New General Catalogue. The Royal Astronomical Society awarded her their Gold Medal in 1828 “for her recent reduction, to January, 1800, of the Nebulæ discovered by her illustrious brother, which may be considered as the completion of a series of exertions probably unparalleled either in magnitude or importance in the annals of astronomical labour.” This award would not go to another woman until 1996.

Over twenty years of working with her brother, Caroline discovered more than 2400 stars, comets, and astronomical objects. In 1888, a newly discovered asteroid was named for her, 281 Lucretia (her middle name), as well as a crater on the Moon, “C. Herschel”. She was named an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1835—one of the first two women members (the other, Mary Somerville, was included the same year). She was also made a member of the Royal Irish Academy in 1838, and in 1846 the King of Prussia awarded ninety-six year old Caroline with a Gold Medal for Science.

Caroline died in 1848, at the age of ninety-eight. On her tombstone is the inscription, “The eyes of her who is glorified here below turned to the starry heavens.”