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Summary Article: Herschel, Caroline (Lucretia) (1750-1848) from The Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography

Place: United Kingdom, Germany, England

Subject: biography, astronomy

German-born English astronomer who discovered 14 nebulae and 8 comets and worked on her brother William Herschel's catalogue of star clusters and nebulae.

Caroline Herschel was born on 16 March 1750 into a working-class family of six children in Hannover, Germany. Her father worked as a gardener but was also a musician and eventually secured himself a position in the Prussian army band. He encouraged all of his children to study mathematics, French, and music. Herschel's growth was stunted at the age of ten by typhus and, assuming her to be unmarriageable because of this, her mother chose her to remain at home as a house servant. Her father took pity on her and secretly encouraged her to continue her education.

In 1772, Caroline's brother William visited Hannover and rescued her from life as a hausfrau in her parents' house, taking her to Bath, England, where he was an organist and choir master at the Octagon Chapel. Caroline trained as a singer and she became a successful soprano, performing solo in the Messiah and Judas Maccabaeus. William meanwhile spent all his spare time on astronomy and was obsessed with seeing further and further into space. With Caroline's help he produced and sold fine telescopes to finance his hobby, and eventually he managed to give up his job and devote all his time to astronomy. William trained Caroline in mathematics and she became his assistant, spending hours grinding and polishing the mirrors they used to collect light from distant objects.

The planet Uranus was discovered by William and Caroline on 13 March 1781 using a 6-m/20-ft telescope of their own manufacture. King George III, an enthusiastic patron of William's work, commissioned a telescope from them and William was sent as emissary to present it to Göttingen University. While he was away, Caroline independently discovered a comet, gaining her own standing in the scientific community. She was to go on to discover a total of eight comets.

In 1787 William was appointed Astronomer Royal and they moved to Old Windsor. Caroline received a salary of £50 a year from the king to work as William's assistant; the first time a woman in England had been recognized in a scientific position. From then on Caroline devoted herself to assisting William while also spending her spare time independently ‘minding the heavens’ and becoming an astronomer in her own right. She discovered 14 nebulae and catalogued them with the discoveries of her brother and English astronomer John Flamsteed into a book published by the Royal Society - Catalogue of 850 stars observed by Flamsteed but not included in the British Catalogue. Also published by the Royal Society was A General Index of Reference to every Observation of every Star in the above-mentioned British Catalogue.

William married in 1788 and the family moved to Slough. He began spending less time in his observatory, leaving Caroline to continue her work alone. When William died in 1822, Caroline returned to Hannover to live with her younger brother Deitrich. She continued her meticulous work there and was very popular, especially with the Prussian aristocracy - it was an honour to be seen with her in public. In 1828 she was awarded a gold medal by the Royal Astronomical Society for The Reduction and Arrangement in the Form of Catalogue, in Zones, of all the Star-clusters and Nebulae Observed by Sir William Herschel in His Sweeps, a catalogue of 2,500 nebulae. She was made an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Irish Academy for her work and was also honoured by the King of Prussia with the Gold Medal of Science for her life's achievements.

William's son, John, also a prominent astronomer, was a lifelong friend and shortly before her death Herschel received a copy of his Cape Observations, which provided a southern counterpoint to William's and her own work. Wary of anything that might detract from her brother's reputation she observed, ‘All that I am, all I know, I owe to my brother.’ Caroline was 98 when she died on 9 January 1848, and was widely mourned by the scientific community.

© RM, 2016. All rights reserved. Helicon Publishing is a division of RM.

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