“A woman’s place is in the dome!” – Marylou West
Often overshadowed by her famous brother William, Caroline Herschel became a renowned observer in her own right and the world’s first female professional astronomer. Here is her story.
• Caroline Herschel was born in 1750 in Hanover, Germany, the eighth of ten children. After contracting a virulent strain of smallpox as a child, she was disfigured and had few prospects for marriage. Her family’s limited means restricted her prospects for higher education or advancement.
• At the age of 22, Caroline went to live with her brother William, who had moved to England to teach music. At first, she was essentially a housekeeper. But William taught her mathematics and she learned to help him make larger and larger telescopes. She slowly gained expertise and self-confidence as a technician and telescope maker.
• After William discovered Uranus, King George III paid him a salary of 200 pounds a year. And he paid Caroline 50 pounds a year as her brother’s assistant. So Caroline became the world’s first female professional astronomer.
Caroline Herschel in her later years
A Deeper Look
• While William set about measuring double stars, Caroline began sweeping the skies with a small refractor, searching for faint deep sky objects not cataloged by Messier. Her first discovery was the open cluster, now called NGC 2360, made on February 26, 1783. This was the first of 14 deep sky objects that she discovered.
• Her deep-sky discoveries inspired William. He gave up his double star observations and began to map the heavens once he understood the riches to be discovered there. His diligence led to the mapping of hundreds of additional deep sky objects, which led to the New General Catalog (NGC) used by astronomers to this day.
• Caroline helped her brother with his catalog and continued to observe. In her free time, she swept the sky with her four-inch refractor and discovered eight comets between 1786 in 1797. Comet seeking was her favorite activity, and her discoveries cemented her reputation as a first-class astronomer.
• After William died in 1822, when Caroline was 75, she returned to Hanover to complete William’s catalog of deep sky objects. She lived until she was 97 years old, clear-minded and active until the end. She received honors from the Royal Astronomical Society, the Royal Irish Academy, and was awarded the gold medal for science by the King of Prussia.
Good To Know
From Caroline’s epitaph: “The gaze of her who has passed to glory was, while below, turned to the starry Heaven: her comet discoveries, and her share in the undying work of her Brother, William Herschel, shall tell of this to all time.”