Birth Date: March 16, 1750
Date of Death: January 9, 1848
Place of Birth: Hanover, Electorate of Hanover, Holy Roman Empire
Place of Death: Hanover, Kingdom of Hanover, German Confederation
Nationality: German
Occupation/Field of Study German astronomer, first woman to be an officially salaried science professional and receive the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society.

 

KEYWORDS: Comets, Messier 110, Catalogue of Stars, Asteroid 281, Crater C. Herschel, Deep-sky sights, Clusters, Nebulae.

SHE THOUGHT IT

Caroline Lucretia Herschel is one of the most recognizable figures in the history of astronomy. Herschel’s interest for the great mysteries of sky began when she was a little child, mainly through her father’s admiration of astronomy1 (p.442). When her brother William became an official astronomer for the royal court, she assisted him on the laborious observations with great devotion and diligence2 (p.373). On 28 August, 1782, Herschel commenced her first record book and her first discovery occurred on 26 February, 1783, when she found a nebula and Messier 110, Andromeda’s second companion1 (p.449). In 1787, Herschel began to cross-index the existing star Catalogue composed by John Flamsteed; as a result, she calculated and catalogued nearly 2,500 nebulae that had not been included in the original version3.

For almost a decade, Herschel was sweeping the skies systematically in her own right. On 1 August, 1786, she discovered her first comet [C/1786 P1 (Herschel)] and between 1786 and 1797, she discovered seven more, five of them with unquestioned priority4 (pp.53-76). Specifically, the second comet, 35P/1788 Y1 (Herschel-Rigollet), was discovered on 21 December, 1788; the third comet, C/1790 A1 (Herschel), on 7 January, 1790; the fourth comet, C/1790 H1 (Herschel), on 17 April, 1790; the fifth comet, C/1791 X1 (Herschel), on 15 December, 1791; the sixth comet, C/1793 S2 (Messier), on 7 October, 1793. Herschel observed the seventh comet, 2P/Encke, on 7 November, 1795 and the eighth and generally accepted to be her final comet discovery occurred on 14 August, 1797. She and Alexis Bouvard in Paris independently discovered Comet C/1797 P1 (Bouvard-Herschel)5.

In addition to those great discoveries, Caroline Herschel also catalogued deep-sky objects, in particular nebulae and star clusters in Cassiopeia, Andromeda and Canis Major6.

Her last contribution to Astronomy was her work on the New General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars in order to help her nephew, John W. Herschel, to re-examine his father’s nebulae and star clusters1 (p.461).

SHORT BIOGRAPHY

Caroline Herschel was born in Hanover in 1750. Her parents, Anna (Moritzen) and Isaac Herschel, had different views regarding their daughter’s education. Despite being in favour of her sons’ education, her mother did not accept the same possibility for her daughter. According to several sources, Herschel’s mother was apparently determined to keep her daughter as an unpaid, overworked domestic worker1 (p.443). Hence, Herschel attended an inferior school run by the military, and a special knitting school. As we are later been informed by Herschel’s notebook, Anna’s attitude marked Herschel for the rest of her life: “I could not help thinking but that she had cause for wishing me not to know more than was necessary for being useful in the family”7. On the other hand, her father, Isaac, was a key figure in Herschel’s life; he was always her silent supporter as he acknowledged her sensibilities and physical difficulties1 (p.444). She had been disfigured by smallpox at age three and her growth was stunted by typhus at age eleven. Alongside him, she learned to admire the sky’s great mysteries: “[…] for I remember his taking me, on a clear frosty night, into the street, to make me acquainted with several of the most beautiful constellations, after we had been gazing at a comet which was then visible”7.

Herschel’s life would change after her father’s death in 1767. William, one of her oldest brothers and a well-established musician, proposed she join him at Bath in order to pursue a career as a singer. After a decade of practicing, Herschel had succeeded in joining the choir of the Octagon Chapel, and soon she was training the choirs for both the chapel and the oratorios8 (pp. 96-9). During this period, her brother devoted all his spare time to astronomical research and making telescopes: he built a 7-feet long and 6¼-inch mirror telescope, having on his side Herschel’s precious help7, and, in 1781, he discovered a comet, which turned out to be a planet, named “Georgian Star” by William, after the King of England—this celestial body would later be known as Uranus. This discovery allowed him to devote himself fulltime to astronomy, as King George officially invited him to Windsor Castle with an annual pension of £200. Caroline followed him to Datchet, abandoning her career as a singer to run her brother’s home, as she had done in Bath. However, this time, William initiated her into observational astronomy and she began to sweep the skies with a small refracting telescope, thus beginning her own career as an astronomer1 (p.127-8).

In Datchet, William continued his observations and built a new Newtonian sweeper, with a focal length of 27-inches, for his sister9. In 1783, she detected three new remarkable nebulae. During their stay at Datchet, Herschel found herself to be William’s companion and general assistant, writing down his shouted observations, often during the night. She learned to record, reduce and organize her brother’s astronomical material; she also performed calculations4 (p.59). In 1785, however, the Herschels would move again from Datchet to Slough.

At Slough, her role as William’s partner was given formal status: in 1787, Caroline Herschel became the first woman who officially received a salary from the Crown of £50 as an assistant to the astronomer to the King8 (p.129). Her entry in her  notebook is as follows: “the first money I ever in all my lifetime thought myself to be at liberty to spend to my own liking”7. In 1787, Herschel began to cross-index the existing star Catalogue, an immense work composed by John Flamsteed and published by the Royal Society. In the meantime, William met his future wife, Mary Baldwin Pitt, and Herschel was dismissed from her house duties. As William’s interest for sweeps diminished, she continued sweeping the sky on her own account, a decision which made her a “Comet-huntress”1 (pp. 452-6). As a result, Caroline Herschel observed, discovered and recorded eight comets4.

Her observations came progressively to an end and, after William’s death in 1822, she moved back to Hanover, a move of self-imposed exile10 (pp.130-1). During this period, Herschel was an excellent assistant to her nephew, John W. Herschel, especially when he needed to revisit his father’s Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars. Caroline Herschel worked on this new project from 1823 to 1825 and it was one of the greatest contributions she ever made to astronomy11.

Caroline Herschel died in 1848, in Hanover, at the age of 97. She would be remembered in the history of astronomy as a skilled astronomer whose perseverance, accuracy, attention to detail, speed and precision made her the first salaried woman in astronomy and an example for those who followed her. However, despite her great achievements, Caroline Herschel was in a constant struggle with her self-esteem1, 8, 10: her life seems to oscillate contradictorily between the great contributions she made and the personal strategies which had “gradually bound herself deeper and deeper into a situation of voluntary exploitation”`12 (p.124).

SCIENTIFIC COLLABORATION AND RECOGNITION

Caroline Herschel is not only recognized for being the first female comet-hunter but also for being the first professional female astronomer in history4 (p.53). Herschel’s work on the new Catalogue and the following General Index of Reference was published by the Royal Society in 1798 at its own expense1. The publication honoured Herschel and gave her the gratification she deserved for carrying through with this immense project1 (p.456). Furthermore, in 1828, Herschel received the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society for revisiting the edition of the New Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars, which is still in widespread use thanks to Herschel’s excellent work1 (p.461). In 1996, the astronomer Vera Rubin would be the second woman to receive this honour.

During her lifetime, Herschel was elected Honorary Member, along with Mary Somerville, of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1835 and in 1846 she received the Gold Medal for Science from the King of Prussia. During her career she earned fame and admiration from her male peers around Europe1 (p.454). She also held the record for comet hunting by female astronomers until 1980s, when Carolyn Shoemaker broke this record as she discovered more than 800 asteroids and 32 comets4 (p.80). Lastly, Asteroid 281 and the small lunar crater C. Herschel bear Herschel’s second and full name respectively, commemorating her contribution to Astronomy.

THEY SAID IT

“The splendid renown attached to Sir W. Herschel’s name was largely due to his sister’s superior intelligence, unremitting zeal, and systematic method of arrangement”.

cited by Fara, Patricia (2002), “Portraying Caroline Herschel”, Endeavour, 26 (4), p. 123.

PRIZES, DISTINCTIONS, HONORS

1798: Herschel’s Catalogue of Stars published by the Royal Society.

1828: Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society.

1835: Elected Honorary Member of the Royal Astronomical Society.

1838: Elected Honorary Member of the Royal Irish Academy.

1846: Gold Medal for Science from the King of Prussia.

1888: Asteroid 281 named Lucretia in honour of her second name.

1935: The crater C. Herschel on the moon named for her contribution to Astronomy.

INTERTEXTUAL MATERIALS

Hawkins, R. (pub.) (1790), The Female Philosopher, smelling out the Comet, etching, 245 × 175 mm, The British Museum, London,

<http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=1538328&partId=1>, (last accessed at 29 Nov. 2016).

Diethe, Alfred (1814), Sir William Herschel and Caroline Herschel, colour lithograph, Wellcome Library, London,

<http://search.wellcomelibrary.org/iii/encore/record/C__Rb1167447__SCaroline%20Herschel__Orightresult__X6;jsessionid=619EEB8E8D302AA3684DEFE2A5037E22?lang=eng&suite=cobalt> (last accessed at 09 Dec. 2017).

Brown, Joseph (after unknown artist) (1842), Caroline Lucretia Herschel, stipple engraving, 203 x 145 mm (plate size), National Portrait Gallery, London,

<http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw12403/Caroline-Lucretia-Herschel?LinkID=mp10465&search=sas&sText=Caroline+Herschel&role=sit&rNo=0> (last accessed at 09 Jan. 2017).

Busse, G. (1847), Caroline Herschel, etching, Royal Astronomical Society, <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Caroline_Herschel_2.jpg> (last accessed at 9 Jan. 2017).

1946, Arctic Crusade, Real Life Comics, no. 32, Pines Publishing, <http://comicvine.gamespot.com/real-life-comics-32/4000-200911/> (last accessed at 9 Jan. 2017).

Kanigher, Robert (ed. writ.) (1952), The Amazing Impersonation. Wonder Woman, no. 51, DC Comics, <http://comicvine.gamespot.com/wonder-woman-51-the-amazing-impersonation/4000-109050/> (last accessed at 9 Jan. 2017).

Special appearance of Caroline Herschel in two Comic Issues

Chicago, Judy (1974-1979), The Dinner Party, mixed media (ceramic, porcelain, textile), 1463 × 1463 cm, Brooklyn Museum, New York,

<https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/dinner_party/> (last accessed 28 November 2016). Caroline Herschel’s place setting is at the Third Wing of the Dinner, “American Revolution to the Women’s Revolution”.

Rich, Adrienne (1979), “Planetarium”, On Lies, Secrets and Silence, New York, London, W. W. Norton & Company, 47-49.

Cedering, Siv (1985), “Letter from Caroline Herschel (1750-1848)”, cited by Rubin, Vera (1996), Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters, New York, AIP Press and Springer, 184-185.

Turner, Tracey (2009), The Comic Strip History of Space, illus. Sally Kindberg, UK, Bloomsbury.

Google Doodles (2016), Caroline Herschel’s 266th Birthday, digital, <https://www.google.com/doodles/caroline-herschels-266th-birthday> (last accessed 25 Jan. 2016).

Fouché, Paul (n.d.), Caroline Herschel Taking Notes as Her Brother William Observes on March 13, 1781, the Night William Discovered Uranus,

<https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:W.Herschel,_C.Herschel.png> (last accessed 9 Jan. 2017).

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY (BY THE AUTHOR):

Herschel, Caroline (1787), “An Account of a New Comet”, Philosophical Transactions, 77 (1-4).

— (1794), “Account of the Discovery of a Comet”, Philosophical Transactions, 84 (1).

— (1796), “An Account of the Discovery of a New Comet”, Philosophical Transactions, 86 (131-4).

— (1827), A Catalogue of the Nebulae which have been observed by William Herschel in a series of sweeps. … in Wollaston’s of Bode’s Catalagues, Unpublished, Hanover.

— (1876), Memoir and Correspondence, ed. Mary C. Herschel, New York: Appleton, available on <http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/herschel/memoir/memoir.html> (last accessed 11 Nov. 2016).

Herschel, Carolina / William Herschel (1798), 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 … with Introductory and Explanatory remarks to each of them, London, Peter Elmsly.

FURTHER READING:

 

Bernardi, Gabriella (2016), The Unforgotten Sisters: Female Astronomers and Scientists before Caroline Herschel, UK, Springer & Praxis Publishing.

Brock, Claire (2007), The Comet Sweeper: Caroline Herschel’s Astronomical Ambition, Cambridge, Icon Books.

Clerke, Agnes Mary (1895), The Herschels and Modern Astronomy, Paris, London & Melbourne, Cassell and Company.

Hoskin, Michael (2014), William and Caroline Herschel. Pioneers in Late 18th-Century Astronomy, Dordrecht, New York, Springer.

— (2003a), The Herschel Partnership as Viewed by Caroline, Cambridge, Science History Publications.

— (ed.) (2003b), Caroline Herschel’s Autobiographies, Cambridge, Science History Publications.

Lemonick, Michael (2009), The Georgian Star: How William and Caroline Herschel Revolutionized our Understanding of the Cosmos, New York, W. W. Norton & Company
Lubbock, Constance A. (ed.) (2013), The Herschel Chronicle: The Life-Story of William Herschel and His Sister Caroline Herschel, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press [1933].

 

WORKS CITED

  1. Hoskin, Michael (2014), “Caroline Herschel’s Life of “Mortifications and Disappointments”, Journal for the History of Astronomy, 45 (4).
  2. Hoskin, Michael (2005a), “Caroline Herschel as observer”, Journal for the History of Astronomy, 36 (4), 373-406.
  3. Herschel, Carolina / William Herschel (1798), 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 … with Introductory and Explanatory remarks to each of them, London, Peter Elmsly.
  4. Olson, Roberta J. M. / Jay M. Pasachoff (2012), “The Comets of Caroline Herschel (1750-1848): Sleuth of the Skies at Slough”, eds. Nicholas Campion and Rolf Sinclair, Culture and Cosmos, (16) 1 and 2, 53-76.
  5. Winterburn, Emily (2015), “Learned modesty and the first lady’s comet: a commentary on Caroline Herschel (1787) ‘An account of a new comet’”, Philosophical Transactions, 373 (2039).
  6. Hoskin, Michael (2006), “Caroline Herschel’s Catalogue of Nebulae”, Journal for the History of Astronomy, 37 (3), 251-255.
  7. Herschel, Caroline (1876), Memoir and Correspondence, ed. Mary C. Herschel, New York: Appleton, <http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/herschel/memoir/memoir.html> (last accessed 10 Jan. 2016).
  8. Ogilvie, Marilyn Bailey (1986), Women in Science. Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 96-99.
  9. Hoskin, Michael (2005b), “Caroline Herschel’s ‘Small’ Sweeper”, Journal for the History of Astronomy, 36 (1), 28-30.
  10. Alic, Margaret (1986), Hypatia’s Heritage: A History of Women in Science from Antiquity to the Late Nineteenth Century, London: The Women’s Press.
  11. South, James (1829), “An address delivered at the annual general meeting of the Astronomical Society of London on February 8 1829, on presenting the honorary medal to Miss Caroline Herschel”, Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society, 3, 409-412, <https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015077097858;view=1up;seq=429> (Last accessed 28 Nov. 2016).
  12. Fara, Patricia (2002), “Portraying Caroline Herschel”, Endeavour, 26 (4), 123-124.

 

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