Born in Hanover, Caroline Herschel (1750-1848) overcame an oppressive childhood marked by poverty and neglect to become one of the foremost astronomers of her time.

Trained as a singer, Herschel moved to Bath in 1772 in order to study music with her brother, William Herschel (1738-1822), an amateur astronomer who was then employed as an organist for a local church. As William became progressively more absorbed in his astronomical work, Caroline relinquished her musical ambitions in favor of learning astronomy, a move that was prompted less by any interest in astronomy per se by her wish to find a role that would allow her to remain with William in Bath rather than returning to Hanover where she was sure to be miserable. Although she started out as a "reluctant astronomer" (Ogilvie 8), Herschel soon became adept at astronomical calculations as well as observational routines such as “comet sweeping,” a procedure that involved repeatedly and systematically scanning the night sky in the hope of seeing a comet, and carefully distinguishing these sightings from similar-looking nebulae and star clusters. Her comet-sweeping expertise eventuated in her first published work, A Catalogue of 860 Stars Observed by Flamsteed but not included in the British Catalogue and A General Index of Reference to every Observation of every Star in the above-mentioned British Catalogue in 1778. As she became a more experienced observer and calculator, she grew increasingly autonomous in her astronomical work. In 1786, on a night when her brother was away, she independently discovered a comet, the first of eight whose appearances she described in letters to the Royal Society.

The following year, in recognition of her efforts, Herschel was awarded a royal stipend of fifty pounds per year. The salary came as a profound encouragement to Herschel who recalled it as “the first money I ever in all my life thought myself to be at liberty to spend to my own liking. A great uneasiness was by this means removed from my mind" (qtd. in Ogilvie 21). Other accolades would follow. In 1828, the Royal Astronomical Society awarded her a gold medal in recognition of her new catalogue of nebulae. In 1835 she was one of the first two women (the other was Mary Somerville) to be awarded honorary memberships in the Royal Astronomical Society; in 1838, she was elected to the Royal Irish Academy; and in 1847, she won the Prussian Gold Medal for Science.

Further reading

Herschel, Caroline and Mary Cornwallis Herschel (ed.) Memoir and Correspondence of Caroline Herschel Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Hoskin, Michael. The Herschel Partnership, As Viewed by Caroline. Cambridge: Science History Publications, 2003.

Hoskin, Michael. Discoverers of the Universe: William and Caroline Herschel Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.

Ogilvie, Marilyn Bailie. Searching the Stars: The Story of Caroline Herschel. Stroud: The History Press, 2008.

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Last modified 5 November 2013