Biography of Caroline Herschel, Astronomer and Mathematician

Astronomer, Mathematician

1896 Lithograph of Caroline and William Herschel

Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Born in Hanover, Germany, Caroline Herschel gave up on getting married after a bout with typhus left her growth stunted seriously. She was well-educated beyond traditional women's work and trained as a singer, but she chose to move to England to join her brother, William Herschel, then an orchestra leader with a hobby in astronomy.

Caroline Herschel

Dates: March 16, 1750–January 9, 1848

Known for: First woman to discover a comet; helping discover the planet Uranus

Occupation: Mathematician, astronomer

Also known as: Caroline Lucretia Herschel

Background, Family:

  • Father: Isaac Herschel, court musician and amateur astronomer
  • Siblings included: William Herschel, musician and astronomer

Education: Educated at home in Germany; studied music in England; taught mathematics and astronomy by her brother, William

Places: Germany, England

Organizations: Royal Society

Astronomical Work

In England, Caroline Herschel began assisting William with his astronomical work, while she trained to become a professional singer, and began to appear as a soloist. She also learned mathematics from William and began helping him with his astronomy work, including grinding and polishing mirrors and copying his records.

Her brother William discovered the planet Uranus and credited Caroline for her help in this discovery. After this discovery, King George III appointed William as court astronomer, with a paid stipend. Caroline Herschel abandoned her singing career for astronomy. She helped her brother with calculations and paperwork, and also made her own observations.

Caroline Herschel discovered new nebulae in 1783: Andromeda and Cetus and later that year, 14 more nebulae. With a new telescope, a gift from her brother, she then discovered a comet, making her the first woman known to have done so. She went on to discover seven more comets. King George III heard of her discoveries and added a stipend of 50 pounds annually, paid to Caroline. She thus became the first woman in England with a paid government appointment.

William's Marriage

William married in 1788, and though Caroline at first was skeptical of having a place in the new home, she and her sister-in-law became friends, and Caroline had more time for astronomy with another woman in the house to do the domestic chores.

Writings and Later Life

She later published her own work cataloging stars and nebulae. She indexed and organized a catalog by John Flamsteed, and she worked with John Herschel, William's son, to publish a catalog of nebulae.

After Willliam's death in 1822, Caroline had to return to Germany, where she continued writing. She was recognized for her contributions by the King of Prussia when she was 96, and Caroline Herschel died at 97.

Recognition

Caroline Herschel was, along with Mary Somerville, appointed to honorary membership in the Royal Society in 1835. They were the first women to be so honored.