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Herschel, Caroline (Lucretia)

astronomy william william’s astronomical

[her shl] (1750–1848) German–British astronomical observer; discovered eight new comets.

Caroline Herschel’s introduction to astronomy was entirely due to her devoted affection for her elder brother but she became the most famous woman astronomer of her time. In 1835 she was one of the first two women elected to honorary fellowship of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Caroline, born in Hanover, was brought up to be the household servant, with minimal education; her mother believed that it was her daughter’s duty to look after her brothers. Her father included Caroline in the musical instruction he gave his sons but warned her ‘against all thoughts of marrying, saying I was neither hansom ( sic ) nor rich, it was not likely that anyone would make me an offer’. After her father’s death Caroline continued to practise her singing and longed for independence. William Herschel proposed to his mother and elder brother that she should join him in Bath and take singing lessons, but this was only agreed to in 1772 after he had paid for a servant to replace Caroline.

Caroline’s brief career as an oratorio singer faded as she became indispensable to William in his increasing interest in astronomy. Lessons in mathematics and astronomy were given at the breakfast table and Caroline became a valuable assistant. She was involved in every aspect of his work: in pounding and sieving horse manure to make material for moulds and in the grinding and polishing of the metal mirrors for telescopes. They observed as a team: she assisted in the recording, prepared catalogues and assisted in writing papers for publication.

In 1783 she began to ‘sweep for comets’ with a small refracting telescope and discovered three new nebulae. Her opportunities for independent observation occurred only when William was away and not needing her assistance. However, between 1786 and 1797 she discovered eight comets and gained a reputation as an astronomer in her own right. As a result of her increasing fame, she was awarded £50 a year by George III in recognition of her work as William’s assistant, the first official female assistant to the Court Astronomer. William found star catalogue very difficult to use; Caroline’s revision of this, Index to Flamsteed’s Observations of the Fixed Stars , was published by the Royal Society in 1798.

On William’s death in 1822 Caroline returned to Hanover. She took a keen interest in her nephew work and for his use she compiled a new catalogue of nebulae arranged in zones, from William’s work, but it was not published. In 1828 she was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society and in 1846 the Gold Medal for Science by the King of Prussia. She held a record for comet discoveries by a woman until 1987 when it was broken by Carolyn Shoemaker.

Caroline Herschel’s contributions to astronomy were made for the love of her brother, but she brought perseverance, a sharp eye and notable accuracy to the work.

Herschel, Sir (Frederick) William [next] [back] Herod

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