Caroline Lucretia Herschel
1750 1848

Caroline was born on March 16, 1750, in Hanover, Germany. Her father was a musician and encouraged her musical talents. She learned to play the violin competently, leaving the rest of her education limited. Caroline's father encouraged her learning, as he told her she lacked the beauty and fortune for finding a suitable husband. Her mother disapproved of her learning.

Caroline's father died in 1767. In an attempt to prepare for her future, Caroline enlisted the aid of a neighbor girl to teach her sewing so she might acquire a position of governess. This proved to not be necessary, however, as her older brother, William, sent for her to come to England to keep his house for him. Her mother was against this venture, but allowed Caroline to go as long as William paid for a maid to tend to Caroline's duties in her mother's house.

William and Caroline performed musically to help make ends meet. By the time she was twenty seven years old Caroline had become a popular vocalist. William had begun to make a career for himself in the field of Astronomy. As William's career became more successful, Caroline and her brother Alexander became his assistants. Caroline helped copy and record William's astronomical projects. William gained quick recognition in scientific circles and Caroline followed. She became the first woman in England to hold a position in government services when she became assistant to King George III's court astronomer, her brother William.

This appointment was Caroline's opportunity to grow in the field of Mathematics. She studied geometry, collected formulas, learned logarithmic tables, and learned the relationship of sedereal time to solar time. She took over the numerical calculations and reductions and record keeping that was too much for William to handle. Caroline also spent much of her time viewing constellations. In 1783 she detected her first nebulae. By the end of that year the number was at fourteen. She became the first woman to detect a comet in 1789. By 1797 she had detected eight comets.

Her greatest accomplishments was arranging catalogs and calculations about 2500 nebulae based on observations already made. In 1828 Caroline completed the cataloging of 1,500 nebulae and many star clusters discovered by the Herschels. At age eighty-five Caroline was elected an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society. On her ninety-sixth birthday the King of Prussia awarded her a gold medal of science.

Contributed by Jennifer Garretson

References:

  1. Gingerich, Owen The Encyclopedia Americana, Vol. 14, Danbury, Connecticut, 1997.
  2. Osen, Lynn M. Women in Mathematics, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1974.

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