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article imageCaroline Herschel — World’s first professional woman astronomer

By Karen Graham     Nov 25, 2018 in Science
Caroline Herschel began her life in astronomy supporting the work of her amateur astronomer brother William. She was working with him when he discovered Uranus.
Long before the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics became known as the academic disciplines called STEM, men were at the forefront of any knowledge in these fields. Such was the case for a young woman in the mid-1700s in Germany.
Caroline Lucretia Herschel was born on March 16, 1750, in Hanover, Germany. She was the eighth child and fourth daughter of Isaac Herschel. Caroline's father was an accomplished musician and he encouraged all eight of his children to pursue French, music, and mathematics.
However, Caroline's mother didn't see the need for a girl to train in those subjects, preferring she learn how to be a house-servant. All the children were taught to read and write, but any further attempts at educating the children further were reserved for the boys in the family.
Astronomer Caroline Herschel  circa 1829.
Astronomer Caroline Herschel, circa 1829.
Ölgemälde: Melchior Gommar Tieleman; Foto des gemeinfreien Gemäldes: unbekannt
At the age of ten, Caroline was struck with typhus, which stunted her growth. She never grew over four feet three inches tall. Her parents decided she would be condemned to being an old-maid, not giving her any encouragement otherwise. She ended up living with her parents until she was 22 years old.
Caroline moves in with her brother
Following her father's death, Caroline's brothers William and Alexander proposed that she join them in Bath, England to have a trial period as a singer for musician brother William's church performances. It was William who gave Caroline voice lessons and trained her in mathematics.
Caroline eventually became a well-known soprano and finally had a career as a musician. Brother, William also had a hobby - astronomy - and he devoted all his free time to it - making more and more powerful telescopes with which to look deeper into space.
Sir William Herschel and Caroline Herschel. Colour lithograph by A. Diethe  ca. 1896. William polish...
Sir William Herschel and Caroline Herschel. Colour lithograph by A. Diethe, ca. 1896. William polishing a telescope element, probably a mirror and Caroline Herschel adds lubricant.
Sir William Herschel and Caroline Herschel. Wellcome V0002731.jpg
As William's passion for astronomy grew, his interest in music declined. He felt driven to understand the heavens better than anyone before - he wanted to see objects so faint that nobody had seen them before. However, he was dissatisfied with the telescope lens of the time.
He wanted the greatest telescopes in the world, yet the only way to achieve this was to build them himself, including grinding his own lens'. This in itself was a remarkable endeavor, considering he was an amateur. But his hard work paid off.
Caroline first served as her brother's apprentice then began to function more and more on her own. She helped her brother develop the modern mathematical approach to astronomy. In March 1781, William discovered Uranus, although he first mistook it for a comet.
The hunt for Planet X began after Uranus (pictured) was first discovered in 1781 with astrologers ho...
The hunt for Planet X began after Uranus (pictured) was first discovered in 1781 with astrologers hoping it could describe the wobbly orbit of Uranus around the sun
, NASA/AFP/File
Since prehistoric times, man has known about the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. William Herschel's discovery of Uranus was a "singular moment in science." He figured that if a planet that could be seen with the naked eye had remained invisible for so long, what else might be out there?
Life as an astronomer
In August 1782, William accepted the private office of court astronomer to King George III. At the age of 32, Caroline moved with William from Bath to Datchet, near Windsor Castle, closer to the king. Her first months as a full-time astronomer were miserable and lonely.
She missed her singing career and the adulation of the crowds. She described her thoughts in a journal: “I was to be trained for an assistant astronomer, and by way of encouragement, a telescope adapted for sweeping [the night skies] was given to me. I was to sweep for comets… But it was not till the last two months of the same year before I felt the least encouragement for spending the starlight nights on a grass-plot covered by dew or hoar frost without a human being near enough to be within call.”
Model of Telescope with which William Herschel discovered Uranus. In the Herschel Museum of Astronom...
Model of Telescope with which William Herschel discovered Uranus. In the Herschel Museum of Astronomy in Bath. The secret of Herschel's success as an observer was the power and magnification of his telescopes. This seven foot long, six inch diameter, ƒ14 reflector was particularly favoured. Its main mirror at the bottom of the tube and the secondary mirror near the top in front of the ocular were made of speculum metal.
Mike Young
By the end of 1783, Caroline had discovered four comets, and she felt much happier. To be the first human to see these remarkable objects inspired her. During her career, Caroline discovered or co-discovered eight comets and 14 nebulae, including, in 1783, the Andromeda nebula’s companion Messier 110, also known as NGC 205.
In 1788, Caroline discovered the periodic comet 35P/Herschel–Rigollet. This comet will return in 2092. We can also add that in 1795, Caroline rediscovered the remarkable Comet Encke, a comet on a 3.3-year orbit of the sun. The comet was first discovered by Pierre Méchain in 1786.
Caroline and her brother William became the most well-known astronomers of their time. Working as a team, the brother and sister increased the number of known nebulae from about 100 to 2,500.
Messier 110  also known as NGC 205  is a dwarf elliptical galaxy that is a satellite of the Andromed...
Messier 110, also known as NGC 205, is a dwarf elliptical galaxy that is a satellite of the Andromeda Galaxy, discovered in 1783 by Caroline Herschel.
Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS)
In 1787, at age 37, Caroline began receiving a pension from King George for her work – she became the world’s first professional woman astronomer. After William's death - she helped her nephew to do a reconstruction of the existing catalog so that known nebulae were listed by position in the sky, rather than class.
She was 75 at the time. Her work won her the British Royal Astronomical Society’s Gold Medal in 1828. No woman would be awarded it again until Vera Rubin in 1996.
Two of the astronomical catalogs published by Caroline Herschel are still in use today. On her ninety-sixth birthday, Caroline Herschel was awarded the King of Prussia's Gold Medal of Science for her lifelong achievements.
C. Herschel is a small lunar impact crater that lies on the western part of Mare Imbrium  and is nam...
C. Herschel is a small lunar impact crater that lies on the western part of Mare Imbrium, and is named after Caroline Herschel. It is a circular, bowl-shaped formation that has not undergone significant erosion.
Lunar and Planetary Institute, Lunar Orbiter Photo Gallery Lunar Orbiter 4, image 139, h1
Caroline Herschel lives to be 96 years old. Caroline died peacefully in Hanover on 9 January 1848. She is buried at 35 Marienstrasse in Hanover at the cemetery of the Gartengemeinde, next to her parents and with a lock of William's hair. Her tombstone inscription reads, "The eyes of her who is glorified here below turned to the starry heavens."
Asteroid 281 Lucretia is named in her honor, as is Lunar crater C.
Women in science
Women have played important roles in medicine, philosophy, and alchemy in early civilizations, but by the 18th century, things began to change for women. During the nineteenth century, women were excluded from most formal scientific education, but they began to be admitted into learned societies during this period.
Marie Skłodowska Curie  won the Nobel Physics Prize in 1903  only two women have followed her
Marie Skłodowska Curie, won the Nobel Physics Prize in 1903, only two women have followed her
-, AFP
In the later nineteenth century, the rise of the women's college provided jobs for women scientists and opportunities for education. Marie Curie, the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize in 1903 for her work in physics, earned a second one in 1911 in chemistry. Between 1901 and 2010, 40 women have won the Nobel Prize, with 17 women awarded the Nobel Prize in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine.
In Germany, the tradition of female participation in craft production enabled some women to become involved in observational science, especially astronomy. Between 1650 and 1710, women were 14 percent of German astronomers. Perhaps this is why Herschel was able to succeed where in other counties and cultures, she would have been ignored.
This is because, during the eighteenth century, there were three divergent views towards woman: that women were mentally and socially inferior to men, that they were equal but different, and that women were potentially equal in both mental ability and contribution to society.
The Royal Observatory in Greenwich  UK.
The Royal Observatory in Greenwich, UK.
Royal Greenwich Museums
To a great extent, this view has carried over to today with STEM education. STEM in the U.S. has typically been dominated by white males, and there has been considerable efforts to create initiatives to make STEM a more racially and gender diverse field.
Some evidence suggests that all students, including black and Hispanic students, have a better chance of earning a STEM degree if they attend a college or university at which their entering academic credentials are at least as high as the average student's.
Basically, the STEM program in the U.S. still needs a lot of work to make it work. As long as educators are not cultivating an interest in the natural and social sciences to youngsters when they first start school, how in the world will we interest them in STEM programs by waiting until they are of high school age?
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