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Caroline Herschel

by Eva Amsen

I’ve been reading about William Herschel lately. While working as a musician, he spent his spare time making – and using – telescopes. It was with a telescope of his own design that he discovered the planet Uranus, kickstarting his career as a full-time astronomer. In researching William, I also read about his sister, Caroline Herschel.

When Herschel moved from Germany to England, he left behind his younger sister. Caroline Herschel had typhus as a child, which stunted her growth. Their parents believed that because of her appearance, Caroline would never find a husband. Even though that labeled her as a bit of a lost cause in those days, their father Isaac gave Caroline the same education in music, art, and science as he had given his sons. When he died, Caroline lost the opportunity to learn. She was forced to work as a servant in the family kitchen, leaving her little time to pursue her interests.

William had been living in England for ten years when Isaac died. When he found out that his mother had put his sister to work as a servant, he invited Caroline to join him in England.

Caroline learned all about astronomy from her brother, and started helping him with his work. She was very good at mounting telescopes, helped with calculations, and started making her own astronomical observations. She discovered several comets, some of which are named after her.

Caroline received a stipend to support her brother in his work as The King’s Astronomer, and with that she became the first salaried female scientist. She was also the first woman (and still one of very few) to receive the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society.

When I came across Caroline’s story a few weeks ago, I thought I’d save it for Ada Lovelace Day. It illustrates how much women were dependent on others’ decisions back then. In Caroline’s case, she was lucky that the men in her life were encouraging her lifelong education, but there must have been many like her who were not so lucky. It’s distant history in western countries, but to this day there are countries where women are discouraged from studying and working in science. Who knows what talent we’re missing out on.

(I’ve been researching Caroline’s brother William as part of an ongoing project involving people who are or were active in both science and music. I’ll be speaking about William Herschel and two other composers as part of Ignite London on November 15.)

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