Caroline Herschel: A Woman Ahead of her Time.

Caroline Herschel: A Woman Ahead of her Time.

Status: Finished

Genre: Non-Fiction



Status: Finished

Genre: Non-Fiction



A brief history of Caroline Herschel, sister of the famous William Herschel the astronomer. Her life and work served the science of astronomy as much as her more famous brother.
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A brief history of Caroline Herschel, sister of the famous William Herschel the astronomer. Her life and work served the science of astronomy as much as her more famous brother.


Submitted: January 29, 2012

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Submitted: January 29, 2012





Caroline Herschel : A Woman Ahead of her Time.



In the late 18th century in Europe, the expectations for a woman were to be proper, a good caretaker, to provide many children for their husbands, and to be in a supportive role for everything her husband wanted to accomplish. Without a husband, a woman was pitied. Women didn't dream of entering the men's world of scholarship, discovery, and science.

Caroline Herschel was born to a German family in 1750. At the age of ten, she contracted typhus, which left her growth stunted. She never grew to be taller than 4'3". According to her father, she was unfit to marry, and her mother saw no reason to educate her because of her supposed life duty to care for her brothers. However, her father did secretly educate her, mostly in music. Her brother, William, moved to Bath, England to pursue a career in music, and when he returned to visit his family, he took pity on Caroline, and moved her to Bath with him. ("").

The intent of William was to have her work for him, helping with his composing and maybe even cataloguing his astronomical discoveries, a hobby he was interested in. He had no idea that she would end up becoming one of Bath's most sought after vocalists, and then later surpass even his own knowledge and discoveries in the field of Astronomy. Caroline discovered the first comet, as well as mapped out much larger areas of our sky than many men who are remembered today. Her work and dedication to the science earned her an honorary membership into the British Royal Society, something unheard of to women prior. She also won membership into the Royal Irish Academy, and also won a gold medal for science from the King of Prussia. ("")

When Caroline first moved to Bath, she was trained in voice by her brother. Her talent became apparent, and although she would only sing to music composed by William, she became a very well-known star of opera houses in Bath. This was more than was ever expected of Caroline, not because of her gender, but because of her perceived homely appearance and her short, stunted height.  This was a major accomplishment, and alone, proved her family wrong who had said that she would be nothing but a servant to the family, taking care of her brothers, and dying alone as an old maid. But she didn't stop pursuing what made her happy regardless of society's standards.

William became interested in astronomy, and began by making telescopes. He sold his telescopes to other enthusiasts, but it wasn't until Caroline became involved in the process that the telescopes became a hot commodity in the area. Caroline, with her small hands, could polish and grind the glass for lenses better than William could, and was dexterous enough to manage the intricate parts of the telescopes. (Ashworth 350-351)Once she began helping in the business, their telescopes were a lucrative endeavor.

Caroline had not been formally educated, and Williams decided that she would be very helpful in his interest in astronomy. He wanted to teach her basic math, and let her help catalog all of his discoveries. Caroline never did memorize the multiplication table (""), but she did start working towards becoming William's assistant anyway.

In 1781, William discovered what he thought at first was a comet. It turned out to be a planet yet undiscovered, which was named Uranus. ("") Because of this find, William became an official astronomer for King George III, and left his music career to be a full time royal astronomer. Caroline left her musical career as well, in order to be Williams official assistant. Even this small move was considered extraordinary, as most apprentices and assistants were young boys.

As William surveyed the skies with his telescopes, Caroline would record his discoveries, writing them down, mapping them, and cataloging them. In this manner, Caroline educated herself on the calculations necessary to do such mapping, and taught herself the basics of surveying the sky. She became familiar with the celestial landmarks, and memorized the layout of the stars. She began to schedule his observations, and William trusted her to finalize the recording of his maps without his supervision. ("")

When William would leave to go out of town on business, Caroline used his absence as an opportunity to indulge in the interest she had grown for astronomy. She would survey the skies herself, using a large telescope that she and William had built. She began recording her discoveries, and among those first few discoveries were star systems, galaxies, and star clusters. These were included in reports by her brother, and credited to Caroline.

William and Caroline moved to be closer to the King, and in 1786, again while William was away, Caroline observed an object not mapped before in the constellation of Leo. Leo was well known, and the object was not a part of the recorded skies in Leo. The next night, Caroline observed the object again, still in Leo, but in a slightly different location. This confirmed her theory that it was a comet, because it was moving. She wrote letters to other astronomers around Europe, who were able to confirm it with their own telescopes. The discovery became known as "the first lady's comet." ("").

Now that the understanding of Caroline's abilities went beyond just her brother, and the scientific world was enlightened to her talent, she was able to commence more independent work. She was acknowledged by King George III, and he awarded her a £50 annual salary and official title of Royal Astronomer's Assistant. (Lewis) Again, this was unheard of, and Caroline was the first woman not only to earn an official title in a scientific field, but to receive an annual salary.

William married in 1788, which marked Caroline's move to more independent work. While she stayed on as William's assistant, she also made hundreds of her own observations as well. She recorded and cataloged and reported all of his discoveries as well as her own.

Caroline's long list of discoveries included three nebulae, eight comets, 561 stars accidentally omitted from the "British Catalogue" and corrections to the same publication. She also later published 2500 confirmed objects discovered by her brother after he passed away. ("") These accomplishments were stunning even for the men of science, and because of her contributions, she was accepted and honored in her society as a highly talented astronomer. No other woman of the time could have shared the experience.

Caroline wrote her own epitaph, which was engraved on her tombstone after her death in 1948. It is beautifully eloquent and equally appropriate: "The eyes of her who is glorified here turned to the starry heavens." ("")

Caroline Herschel may not have discovered an entire planet, or as many nebulae as her brother, but when the difficulties of having to tend to the assumed duties of her gender, like housework and chores, added to the tasks of recorded and cataloging the many discoveries of her brother, then to observing and recording her own at the same time, it stands to reason that she may have made just as many discoveries as any of the men who are famous for it, if she hadn't had to carry the burden that was "women's work."  In confirmation to this idea, Caroline once said "[..] But all these troubles were removed when I knew my brother to be at no great distance making observations with his various instruments on double stars, planets, &c., and I could have his assistance immediately when I found a nebula, or cluster of stars, of which I intended to give a catalogue; but at the end of 1783 I had only marked fourteen, when my sweeping was interrupted by being employed to write down my brother's observations with the twenty-foot." ("")

William, as generous and helpful as he was, provided the catalyst for Caroline to begin her work in astronomy. However,  because of the perceived notion that his work was more important that hers, as she was a female and only an assistant, even though she did most of his work as well, she was compelled to stop her work at any time to assist with his. Who knows how many objects she did not record because his needed attention, or how many discoveries she had to overlook because of his work?

What I have learned about women's past roles in societies has made it quite clear to me how accomplished Caroline actually was.  We have learned that women who ignored or resisted their society's expectations of the female gender were usually outcast or exiled. A woman in 18th century Europe was expected to be pure, moral, and supportive of the men around her. Any deviation from that model was considered a deficiency. George Eliot's stories emphasize this point, that women who strayed from their path were punished. (Epstein Nord 108-129)

Caroline's path was written out for her early in her life. Born to a middle class family in Germany, with brothers, automatically put her in a support role to her brothers. Her mother insisted on no education other that what would help her be a better caretaker to the family. The results of the Typhus virus further restricted her path, as she would have been considered to "ugly" or malformed to be able to marry. Without a husband, it was assumed that she had little choice but to become a servant of sorts to the family.

The scientific field was probably one of the last fields to become accessible to women.  As far back as Hypatia in the 4th century, who was arguably as responsible for the modern view of the solar system as Copernicus and Galileo, women who even attempted to pursue scientific studies were considered flawed, abnormal women. They rarely married, as they were deemed unacceptable, and were exiled, ignored, and sometimes murdered because of their pursuits, as Hypatia was. ("Wikipedia")

This is unimaginable in our present society. Women are free to pursue education, careers, and remain unmarried, even with children. While gender roles are still obvious and prevalent in our society, they are nothing like the bleak future handed to Caroline.

William, having been brought up in the same society, knew his sister's role. While he didn't intend to broaden the options for her, he did feel enough pity on her to offer her an acceptable form of "working for the family." She was still expected to fulfill the womanly duties of the household, until William married, and did so. This shows that Caroline and William both had not disregarded the roles assigned by society.

Like many other women in history, mostly forgotten and ignored, Caroline veered from the path set up for her as a girl child in her society. I believe one of the reasons she wasn't persecuted for her work in a male dominated field is because of the baby steps she made. Instead of declaring her rebellion of the role society had chosen for her, she began by following. Her work with her brother was considered acceptable, because she was not paid and because she still performed the duties of the home. She was still working for her family. When she began to assist him in his astronomical pursuits, it was but a small step from helping him manufacture telescopes to helping him document his findings. It was then just another baby step for her to become William's official assistant. So on and so forth her baby steps continued, making it easier for society to accept, until she had accomplished much more than any other woman in the field of astronomy, let alone being recognized for it.  

Caroline and many other women who deviated from their path, either overtly or in baby steps, are an enormous part of the reason that our modern society is able to accept things from women that were unfathomable in the past. In the scientific arena, many women since Caroline have deviated enough from their societal roles that it is acceptable and appreciated that so many women have chosen to pursue the sciences, and many cures, discoveries, inventions, observations, and theories that benefit the field have been due to these women.

I am pursuing a career in a scientific field as well. I have always been a lover of anything scientific, from astronomy, to quantum physics, to biology and chemistry. Had it not been for Caroline Herschel, and the other women, named or unnamed, who paved the way with their deviation from the societal norms, my pursuits would put me in the category of Eliot's characters. Therefore, although William Herschel did indeed contribute to astronomy, I will always perceive the other Herschel as the one who not only contributed to astronomy as well, but to the movement of women into the scientific field. Thank you, Caroline.


1. "Hypatia." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 10/09/2011. Web. 9 Oct 2011. <>.


2. Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Caroline Herschel." The New York Times Company, n.d. Web. 9 Oct 2011. <>.


3. "Carolyn Herschel." The Woman Astronomer, 01/01/2008. Web. 9 Oct 2011. <>.


4. "Caroline Herschel." Soylent Communications, 2011. Web. 9 Oct 2011. <>.


5. "Caroline Lucretia Herschel (March 16, 1750 - January 9, 1848)." SEDS, n.d. Web. 9 Oct 2011. <>.


6. Ashworth, Wilhelm. "Untitled Review." British Society for the History of Science. 37. 2004. Print.


7. Epstein Nord, Deborah. ""Return from Exile": Community, Nation, and Gender in George Eliot's Fiction." Exploring Women's Studies. (2006): 108-129. Print.


© Copyright 2017 Sabrina Bourque. All rights reserved.

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