Caroline Herschel: Her Passion Lay in the Stars

caroline herschel
M. F. Tielemanm - Between pages 114 and 115 of Agnes Clerke's The Herschels and Modern Astronomy (1895). Public domain.

Caroline Lucretia Herschel was a well-born 18th-century astronomer who migrated to England to work with her brother, the well-known William Herschel. Despite her gender, she gained a formidable reputation as an astronomer, and made made many observations and contributions.

The Early Life of an Astronomer

Caroline was born March 16, 1750 in Hannover, Germany, in an age when women were second-class citizens, she was the fifth of six children, including her brother, William.

Scarred at the age of three by smallpox, which disfigured her left eye and pock-marked her cheeks, her growth was stunted by typhus when she was ten.

While her father, a military musician, tried to provide her and all his children, with an education in mathematics, music, and French, Caroline’s mother did not see the need for a girl to become educated. She preferred Lina, as she was known, to work as a maid for the family. Thanks to the deformities caused by her illnesses, her parents concluded she would never marry.

Moving to England

During the Seven Years' War, William moved to England, and a few years later, Caroline joined him there. He was an accomplished musician and conductor and gave Caroline voice lessons and trained her in mathematics, as well. Despite her physical problems, Caroline became a well-known soprano and began to sing professionally. Among her best received works were solo parts in The Messiah and  the opera Judas Maccabeus.

Paying Attention to the Stars

William's hobby of astronomy began taking more and more of his free time. His reputation as a telescope maker grew so great that he quit his job as a musician and devoted all of his time to the making of telescopes and to astronomy. Caroline became his apprentice and worked with him to manufacture better instruments.

She also shared his passion for astronomy. Eventually she began doing her own observations, and worked with her brother develop the modern mathematical approach to astronomy. Although she never memorized her multiplication tables, Caroline performed the complicated calculations from her brother's observations.

On March 13, 1781, William spotted what he first believed to be a comet. After careful observation by himself and other astronomers, it was determined he had discovered a new planet, Uranus. The following year, William was appointed as astronomer to King George III and was granted a royal pension. Giving up his music career, he began to practice astronomy full time, with Caroline by his side.

Viewing the Sky on Her Own

Caroline took many opportunities to make her own observations, and in 1783 she discovered three new nebulae, hazy clouds where stars form. Today, these objects are known as NGC 2360, NGC 205, and NGC 253. On August 1, 1786, Caroline discovered her first comet. After viewing this object again on August 2, to determine its movement, she wrote letters to various other astronomers announcing her discovery. Soon it had was seen by observers throughout Europe.

This first discovery of a comet by a woman brought Caroline to the attention of the world.

In 1787, King George III gave Caroline a £50 per year salary to continue as William's assistant. With this step, she became the first woman officially recognized for a scientific position.

Life Changes

In 1788, William married Mary Pitt, daughter of a wealthy merchant and a widow. This marriage disrupted the close relationship between Caroline and William, and she ended up moving to new lodgings. She continued to work as his assistant, but also pursued her own independent work. By 1797 she had discovered seven more comets. Her second comet is now known as periodic comet Herschel-Rigollet and returns every 155 years. Besides her comet hunting, Caroline also began re-cataloging Flamsteed's star catalog and submitted it to the Royal Society in 1798, along with another 560 stars which Flamsteed had omitted.

After William died in 1822, Caroline returned to Hannover and completed William's catalog of 2500 nebulae.

Shortly thereafter, she received the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society on February 8, 1828. She went on to receive other honors including becoming the first woman to receive honorary membership into Britain's Royal Society in 1835, election into the Royal Irish Academy in 1838, and awarded the Gold Medal for Science by the King of Prussia in 1846 on her 96th birthday.

Remembering Caroline Herschel

Caroline wrote her own epitaph, which was engraved on her tombstone upon her death on January 9, 1848. It reads, "The eyes of her who is glorified here below turned to the starry heavens." In 1889, Caroline received a final honor for her achievements when a minor planet was named "Lucretia," her middle name. A lunar crater called C. Herschel is named in her honor as well.


Edited and updated by Carolyn Collins Petersen.