Caroline Herschel Biography – First Woman to Discover a Comet

Astronomer, Concert Soprano, First Woman to Discover a Comet

Herschel discovered 3 new nebulae, 8 new comets, and wrote 2 astronomical catalogues.

Caroline Herschel, German-born English astronomer and concert soprano, was the first woman to discover a comet. Her major contribution to astronomy was discovery of three new nebulae and eight new comets. She also published two astonomical catalogues still in use today.

Early Life

Caroline Lucretia Herschel was born on March 16, 1750, in Hanover, Germany. She was the fifth of six children of Isaac Herschel and Anna Moritzen. Her father Isaac was a talented musician, an oboist and gardener, who encouraged all six of his children to train in mathematics, music and French. Caroline’s mother did not see the need for her to be educated but rather preferred her as a house servant for the family.

She suffered childhood diseases that scarred her life. At three, her cheeks and left eye were slightly disfigured by smallpox, and at 10 she was stricken with typhus which permanently stunted her growth to a height of 4’3″. She remained in her parents’ home until the age of 22, then her favorite astronomer brother William Hershel took her to live with him in Bath, England.

Herschels, Musicians in England

In 1772 she left Germany and joined her brother William in Bath, England, originally to study music, but later worked with her brother William Herschel in his astronomical work. Although William’s hobby was astronomy, he was an accomplished musician and a conductor. He gave Caroline voice lessons. She became a well-known soprano and sang professionally as the principal singer at her brother’s oratorio concerts. Having acquired a reputation as a vocalist, she was offered an engagement for the Birmingham festival, which she declined.

When William turned his eye to astronomy, he trained his sister to be his assistant. Caroline cooperated with him both in his professional duties and in the astronomical researches. She taught herself astronomy and mathematics that proved beneficial in assisting her brother with his studies. At first, she served as her brother’s apprentice then eventually functioned on her own.

Astronomy Work and Comet Discovery

When William’s reputation as a telescope manufacturer grew he quit his job as a musician and devoted himself full time to astronomy and to making of telescopes. In 1781, William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus and astronomy became his livelihood. A year later, he accepted the office of astronomer to George III and moved to the Slough area.

Caroline became William’s constant assistant in his observations, executed the laborious calculations, and also helped her brother in the manufacture of telescopes. She shared his passion for astronomy. Together they built a giant telescope and used it to study the night sky. Her amusement during her leisure hours was sweeping the heavens with a small Newtonian telescope, one she used when she detected three remarkable nebulae (hazy clouds where stars form), followed by 11 years, eight comets, five of them with unquestioned priority – among them, Comet Encke.

Her first comet, discovered on August 1, 1786, was the first discovered by a woman. The following year, she started to receive a salary from George III for her work as William’s paid assistant, which made her the first woman officially recognized in a scientific position, and the first woman to be appointed assistant to the Court Astronomer.

Caroline Herschel presented to the Royal Society an Index to Flamsteed’s observations, along with a catalogue of 561 stars accidentally omitted from the British Catalogue, and a list of the errata in that publication.

In 1822, she returned to Hanover after the death of her brother, but kept astronomical studies to heart. She completed work of 2,500 nebulae discovered by her brother William and also catalogued every discovery she and William had made. Two of the astronomical catalogues published by her are still in use today. Buried in Germany, Herschel was 98 years old when she died.

Caroline Herschel’s Awards, Distinctions, and Recognition

  • 1828, the Royal Astronomical Society presented her with their Gold Medal – no woman would be awarded it again until Vera Rubin in 1996.
  • 1835, she was elected an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society.
  • 1846, she received a Gold Medal of Science from the King of Prussia for her life-long achievements.
  • Asteroid 281 Lucretia was named after her second given name.
  • Caroline Herschel crater in the Sinus Iridium on the Moon was named in her honor.

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