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Caroline Herschel

Caroline Herschel
Credit: care of Royal Astronomical Society

Caroline Herschel (1750 –1848)

Caroline was born in Germany. When she was 10 years old she became ill with typhus, this stopped her from growing so she was only four-foot and three inches tall. Her parents didn't think she would ever marry and thought it best if she went into service. However, when she was 22 she moved to Bath in England to join her brother William (who was a music teacher) and became his housekeeper.

When William became more interested in astronomy he taught Caroline mathematics so she could help him in his work. She helped polish mirrors for his telescopes and kept the records of all his observations. In 1781, William (with Caroline’s help) discovered Uranus and shortly afterwards he became King’s astronomer to George III. Caroline continued to help with his work but William also encouraged her to make her own observations.

On the 1st August 1786, Caroline discovered her first comet. She noted a fuzzy object “like a star out of focus while the others were perfectly clear”, she drew its position in relation to other stars, noticed it was slowly moving throughout the night and made detailed notes about its position. Caroline became very famous because of this discovery; she was the first women to discover a comet. A year later King George III made her William’s official assistant paying her £50 a year; this made Caroline the first professional woman astronomer in Britain.

During her lifetime Caroline discovered seven more comets, an open cluster (now known as NGC 2360) and 14 new nebulae including an independent discovery of the companion galaxy (now called M110) to the Andromeda galaxy. During his observations William noticed that there were a lot of errors in the star catalogue previously created by John Flamsteed (the first Astronomer Royal) and Caroline worked to update it adding another 560 stars to the catalogue which already had about 3000 stars in it. She also produced a catalogue of nearly 2,500 nebulae.

Caroline received many honours for her scientific achievements. In 1828 she became the first woman to be awarded a Gold Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society for her work on the nebulae catalogue and in 1846 on her 96th birthday the King of Prussia presented her with a Gold Medal for Science. Although women could not join the Royal Astronomical Society she was named an Honorary Member of the society in 1835 and later in 1838 she was also named an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy.