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. When she was 22 she moved to Bath, UK to join her brother William (a music teacher) and became his housekeeper.

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

In 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 the sky and noticed it was slowly moving throughout the night. Caroline was the first women to discover a comet. The King 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.