Agnes Scott College

Caroline Herschel

Caroline Herschel

March 16, 1750 - January 9, 1848


Written by Melissa Nysewander, Class of 1998 (Agnes Scott College)

Caroline Herschel was born in 1750 into a working class family in Hanover, Germany. Her father, Isaac, tended gardens to support his family, yet he was also a clever musician. In time, his mastery of music led him to secure a position as a bandsman in the Prussian army. He encouraged all of his six children to train in mathematics, French and music. But Caroline's mother wanted something else-- Caroline was destined to be her house servant, a virtual Cinderella. Isaac took pity on her bleak life and, without his wife's knowledge, encouraged her to improve herself. Typhus struck Caroline at age ten. This stunted Caroline's growth; she never grew past four foot three. Because of this malformation, her father advised her that she would never marry and would live her life as an old maid. He believed that she was not handsome enough for a man to ever have interest in her. This prediction became true, yet Caroline led a long life with many friends and admirers. She scarcely fit the image of a crone.

When Caroline was twenty-two, her brother, William, took her away from her home in Hanover to Bath, England. He felt sympathy for his sister, and he needed a housekeeper. He also gave her voice lessons, and she became the most prominent soprano in Bath. By this time, William was an accomplished musician and a chorus director with a yearly salary of 400 pounds. He had a hobby that he supported with all his spare time--astronomy. William Herschel had an obsession with seeing deeper and deeper into space by creating very powerful telescopes. After Caroline arrived, his notoriety flourished in England as a great telescope maker. He quit his job as conductor after receiving a pension from King George III. Devoting his time to astronomy, he produced and sold huge quantities of fine telescopes. At this time, Caroline did not share her brother's passion for the science. William trained her in mathematics, yet she was still a house maid, not yet his apprentice.

In time she began to help him in his business. She spent long hours grinding and polishing the mirrors they used to collect light from distant objects. At the age of 32, she became an apprentice to her brother. She knew the mechanics of the craft and had developed the self confidence lost to her from her period of servitude to her parents. She was becoming of greater use to her brother. Frequently, when he would leave on business, she would take over in his place. Visitors began to recognize her authority. King George III gave her a pension of fifty pounds. This was the first time that a woman was recognized for a scientific position.

Her first accomplishments were the detection of nebulae. William gave her a small telescope with which to look for comets. Trivial though it may sound, in this era, comet hunting was the main focus of many astronomers. Caroline's first experience in mathematics was her catalogue of nebulae. She calculated the positions of her brother's and her own discoveries and amassed them into a publication. One interesting fact is that Caroline never learned her multiplication tables. She studied them so late in life that she never got a hold on them. She carried a table on a sheet of paper in her pocket when she worked.

William gained more prestige for his discovery of the planet Uranus. He used his huge twenty foot telescope for this achievement. Because of his reputation, he became an emissary of the King. William traveled to Germany to give a huge telescope to the University of Gottingen. The King commissioned the gift to the school; he was an extensive patron of William's work. During William's visit to Germany, Caroline had her first big breakthrough--she discovered a comet [Abstract]. This was eventful news for Caroline as well as the scientific community. Her brother was elated when he learned of her progress.

William married and spent less time at the observatory, yet Caroline, although grieving for her lost friend and partner, carried on her work as a prominent astronomer. Before William's death, she found seven more comets. When her brother died, she finished her career as an observational astronomer. She returned to Hanover and lived with her younger brother, Dietrich. Before her death, she catalogued every discovery that she and William had made. She sent this to the scientific community in England, and they proclaimed her an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Irish Academy. Germany honored her as well. The King of Prussia gave her the Gold Medal of Science for her life's accomplishments.

The Prussian aristocracy received her well until her death. To be seen with her in public was an honor. She had many friends, among them William's son, John and his wife. John was also a prominent English scientist, so he and his aunt had much to discuss. Caroline lived to be ninety-eight. The church of her childhood, near her parents, is where she now rests. The entire scientific community mourned the passing of such a strong and prominent scholarly woman.


On Saturday, March 16, 2002, Garrison Keillor mentioned Caroline Herschel's birthday as part of "The Writer's Almanac" for that day. You may read the script, or listen to the broadcast, at http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/programs/2002/03/11/index.html#saturday

References

  1. Ashton, Helen and Davies, Katharine. I Had a Sister. Lovart Dickson Limited: London. 1937
  2. Osen, Lynn M. Women in Mathematics, MIT Press, 1992.
  3. Biography at the MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive