The Lost Heroine of Astronomy

William Herschel (1738-1822) is remembered for the discovery of the planet Uranus. He discovered infrared radiation and became the first President of the Royal Astronomical Society. He is also the older brother of Caroline Herschel, the first female scientist to receive a salary, the first woman in England to hold a government position, and the discoverer of several comets. Yet, despite these achievements, Caroline is rarely mentioned in history books. Her brother was the more important of the siblings because he was a man. So, let’s rediscover this lost heroine of astronomy.

Caroline Lucretia Herschel was the eighth of ten children born on 16th March 1750 in Hanover, Germany, to oboist Issak Herschel and Anna Ilse Moritzen. Not all the children survived infancy, and those that did received a basic education at home. Issak made more effort to teach his sons than his two surviving daughters, who learned little more than reading and writing. Her father never thought Caroline would amount to much, particularly after she caught typhus at the age of ten. The illness stunted her growth, never growing taller than 4 feet 3 inches, and affected her eyesight.

Typhus put an end to Caroline’s regular education, and her mother did not expect her to find a husband. She insisted Caroline train as a house servant, although Issak continued to teach his daughter in secret. Following her father’s death in 1771, Caroline’s older brothers William and Alexander invited her to move with them to Bath in England, where they worked as musicians. They thought Caroline could work with them as a singer and perform in churches. It took some time to persuade their mother to let Caroline travel to England, but she eventually joined her brothers in August 1772.

As well as singing, Caroline looked after William’s household at 19 New King Street, Bath, which is now the location of the Herschel Museum of Astronomy. Caroline found it difficult to mix in society but soon gained the opportunity to continue her education. Caroline’s brothers taught her arithmetic and to play the harpsichord, as well as regular singing lessons. She became the lead singer at William’s oratorio concerts, although only agreed to perform if her brother conducted. She gained a reputation for her voice after singing a solo in Handel’s Messiah in 1778, but her reluctance to work with other conductors led to a decline in her singing career.

Alongside infrequent public performances, Caroline focused her attentions on looking after her brother’s home. William left his music career behind, choosing to focus on his passion for astronomy. Whilst William studied, Caroline did “what a well-trained puppy dog would have done, that is to say, […] what he commanded…” As time went on, Caroline grew interested in her brother’s work and shared his excitement for the stars. During the 1770s, William built several telescopes, grinding the lenses by himself rather than purchasing inferior ones. It was with one of these that William discovered the planet Uranus on 13th March 1781.

In 1782, Caroline and William agreed to a final musical performance, after which William accepted the position of court astronomer to King George III (1738-1820). They moved to a shabby cottage in the village of Datchet, from where William could be on hand for the king at Windsor Castle. Her brother wished Caroline to be his assistant, which involved spending hours polishing mirrors, positioning telescopes and recording William’s astronomical observations. Initially, Caroline hated this work but soon grew to enjoy it after William asked her to “mind the heavens” with a telescope for interesting objects.

Caroline started keeping a record book in which she noted all her observations. These she compared with the Messier catalogue, a list of 110 nebulae and faint star clusters compiled by French astronomer Charles Messier (1730-1817). On 26th February 1783, Caroline spotted a nebula that did not appear in the catalogue. After more observation, she discovered a dwarf elliptical galaxy, now known as Messier 110, orbiting the Andromeda Galaxy. Although the discovery was recorded in Caroline’s name, William did not want to miss out on future discoveries and took over the searching, relegating his sister to note and measurements taker.

Noting his sister’s disappointment, William constructed a telescope for Caroline to use, although he still required her to take notes. Every night, William shouted out his sightings, which required Caroline to quickly look them up in either the Messier catalogue or the Catalogus Britannicus. The latter was a 3,000-star catalogue compiled by the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed (1646-1719). Unfortunately, neither list suited the Herschel sibling’s work, so Caroline created her own catalogue.

On 1st August 1786, while her brother was away, Caroline borrowed William’s telescope to sweep the sky, where she spotted an unknown comet. Over the next eleven years, she discovered eight new comets, although only five appeared in the Royal Society’s journal Philosophical Transactions under her name. Caroline also observed a comet that the French astronomer Pierre Méchain (1744-1804) had spotted a decade before, yet the Society named it after the third person to detect it, Johann Franz Encke (1791-1865). Unlike Caroline and Méchain, the German astronomer calculated that the comet orbits the Earth once every 3.3 years. Thus, the comet is known as Encke’s Comet.

After Caroline spotted her first comet, William presented her to the royal family at Windsor Castle. For some time, Caroline was known as the first woman to discover a comet, although later evidence proves this incorrect. Maria Kirch (1670-1720) is officially the first woman to spot a comet, but this knowledge remained hidden for many years because her husband, Gottfried Kirch (1639-1710), claimed it under his name. Nonetheless, Caroline’s reputation grew, and she reported her second find directly to the Astronomer Royal, the Reverend Doctor Nevil Maskelyne (1732-1811).

Caroline became familiar with several well-known members of the Royal Society, including its president, Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), who rose to fame after accompanying Captain James Cook (1728-79) to Australia. Caroline announced the rest of her comet discoveries directly to Banks, including her eighth and final comet, which she observed on 6th August 1797 without the aid of a telescope. During this time, Caroline received an annual salary of £50 (equivalent to £6,400 in 2021) from the king, making her the first woman in England with an official government position. She was also the first paid woman in the field of astronomy.

Both Caroline and William continued to struggle to cross-reference their findings with Flamsteed’s catalogue, frequently resorting to Caroline’s previous notes instead. Other astronomers also faced similar difficulties, so William recommended his sister write a cross-index for all to use. The project, which took Caroline 20 months to complete, resulted in Catalogue of Stars, Taken from Mr. Flamsteed’s Observations Contained in the Second Volume of the Historia Coelestis, and Not Inserted in the British Catalogue, published by the Royal Society in 1798. This new catalogue included all the stars listed by Flamsteed and 560 new findings. Unfortunately, rules forbade women from writing scientific documents, so the catalogue appeared under William’s name.

The payment for the new catalogue supplemented Caroline’s income, affording her more independence. Her brother’s marriage in 1788 to a widow named Mary forced Caroline to move into external lodgings, but she still returned to the main house to work with her brother. Unfortunately, William denied her a copy of the key to his observatory and workroom, meaning she could never work alone. Caroline destroyed her journals from this period, so her true feelings are unknown, but biographers suggest Caroline felt bitter and jealous of William’s wife, the usurper of her position in the household. On the other hand, French geologist Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond (1741-1819), who befriended the siblings, claimed they worked well together. Caroline also looked after the house and observatory whenever William was away. Letters sent to and from Mary in later life also indicate a loving relationship, often writing fondly about her nephew John (1791-1871).

Although Caroline had restricted access to her brother’s observatory, she continued to make independent discoveries and contributed to many astronomical projects. In August 1799, Caroline received an invitation to spend a week in Greenwich as a guest of the Royal Family, which she readily accepted. Despite being a woman, Caroline’s fame grew, and many respected her as the true author of the Catalogue of Stars and discoverer of comets.

When William passed away in 1822 after a long illness, his grief-stricken sister returned to Hanover, Germany. Caroline later admitted she regretted leaving England, but she continued her astronomical studies from her new home. Using her brother’s notes, Caroline verified William’s work and produced another nebulae catalogue to aid her nephew John in his aspirations to follow in his father’s footsteps. Due to this work and the determination to write her memoirs, Caroline made no further original discoveries in the night sky. Nonetheless, she continued to attend events with other scientific luminaries and remained a respected astronomer.

In 1828, Caroline received the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society for her “recent reduction, to January, 1800, of the [2,500] 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.” She was the first woman to receive such an honour and remained the only person of her sex until 1996 when Vera Rubin (1928-2016) received the medal for her work on galaxy rotation rates.

In 1835, the Royal Astronomical Society elected Caroline an Honorary Member. She shared the honour of the first female member with the Scottish scientist Mary Somerville (1780-1872). Three years later, Caroline achieved the same status at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. At the age of 96, Caroline also received recognition from Frederick William IV of Prussia (1795-1861). “In recognition of the valuable services rendered to Astronomy by you, as the fellow-worker of your immortal brother, Sir William Herschel, by discoveries, observations, and laborious calculations,” Caroline accepted another Gold Medal for Science.

“The eyes of her who is glorified here below turned to the starry heavens.” This is the inscription on Caroline Herschel’s gravestone in the cemetery of the Gartengemeinde, where she was buried after passing away peacefully on 9th January 1848, at the age of 97. Forty years later, the Austrian astronomer Johann Palisa (1848-1925) named a comet after Caroline’s middle name Lucretia, proving her reputation lived on after her death. Two of her independent discoveries also share her name, Caroline’s Cluster and Caroline’s Rose, as well as a crater on the moon. Yet after this, Caroline Herschel’s fame faded away until the second half of the 20th century.

Caroline Herschel reappeared in 1968 when feminist poet Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) penned Planetarium, subtitled, “Thinking of Caroline Herschel … astronomer, sister of William; and others.” One verse of the poem refers to “a woman ‘in the snow among the Clocks and instruments or measuring the ground with poles’ in her 98 years to discover 8 comets”, which presumably refers to Caroline’s work, although she passed away just short of her 98th birthday. Yet, Rich’s work is only loosely inspired by Caroline Herschel and does not highlight her achievements or reveal anything about her life.

During the 1970s, feminist artist Judy Chicago (b.1939) honoured Caroline with a table setting in The Dinner Party. This installation artwork, which is on display in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, New York, symbolises the work of 39 women throughout history. The artwork consists of tables in a triangle formation, each side representing a period of time. Caroline Herschel sits between Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) and the Native American woman Sacagawea (1788-1812) on the American to the Women’s Revolution side of the table. Another side represents women from prehistory to the Roman Empire, for instance, Boadicea and the Hindu goddess Kali. The third side seats women from the beginnings of Christianity to the Reformation, including Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), Hildegarde of Bingen (1098-1179) and Elizabeth I (1533-1603).

Each place setting in The Dinner Party features an embroidered cloth featuring the sitter’s name and images to represent their accomplishments. Upon this sits a napkin, cutlery, a goblet, and a decorated plate. Chicago painted an eye in the centre of Caroline Herschel’s plate to represent the astronomer looking through a telescope. The tablecloth features stars, clouds, sun and eight comets.

Whilst Judy Chicago recognised the talents and achievements of 39 women, including Caroline Herschel, the artwork does little more than introduce their names and hint at their career. To fully appreciate these forgotten women, people need to read, learn and talk about them to keep them alive. In Ancient Egypt, a soul never died whilst someone remained alive to speak its name. Although this belief is not a part of modern religions, the premise is the same. Without educating others about historical figures, they will metaphorically die, just like Herschel almost did before poets and artists like Rich and Chicago resurrected her. Fortunately, several books concerning Caroline Herschel have appeared during the 21st century, so her memory continues to live.

Last year, Argentina released several satellites named after women of science, including Caroline Herschel, and in 2016, Google remembered her 266th birthday with a “Google Doodle”. Other than this, little else has helped return Caroline to her former glory. Famous during her lifetime, Caroline’s achievements have since gone unnoticed. This is largely due to society’s attitudes towards women in the 18th and 19th century. Unable to publish her work under her own name, Caroline’s brother took the credit. Whilst this was not a problem at the time, because friends and acquaintances knew it was Caroline’s work, the people of the future wrongly assumed William Herschel made the discoveries. In the 21st century, it is time for women of the past to reclaim their achievements and receive the same respect as male figures.


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3 thoughts on “The Lost Heroine of Astronomy

  1. Hazel very much showing her feminist credentials in this another master class in writing. So much we don’t know about Caroline, a product of her time. Such a shame women then and now need to continually push for the recognition which they deserve. Caroline achieved so much, discoveries of comets and accurately annotating her other astrological accomplishments. Having overcome so much, illness, inferior education, societies prejudices it’s a delight to read Hazel’s account of Caroline’s exceptional life. Thank you.

  2. Well done Hazel for bringing another underestimated woman to our attention. How many more must there be still to be accounted for? I,m sure if anyone can find them it is you!

  3. Pingback: The Queen of Science | Hazel Stainer

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