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Unconventional Heroines: Caroline Herschel’s Stellar Career

I’ve known about Caroline Herschel for quite a few years, but last week I went on a tour of the RAS and as we were shown into the upstairs library a rather wild looking lady dressed in a long saffron silk dress and with her greying blond hair halfway down her back burst in and, in a heavy German accent and a great deal of humor, presented the amazing life story of William Herschel’s younger sister who became the first woman ever to get paid for doing science (50 pounds per annum from King George III, no less).

This was a woman who had almost no education as a child, was treated as a drudge by her family, was brought to England by her older brother to become a singer in his musical performances, and when he developed an interest in telescopes, she became his technical helpmate, creating mirror molds from cow-dung for him, amongst other tasks. William Herschel was himself a fascinating, generous, and brilliant man with a deep impact on science (he became court astronomer to King George III).

But Caroline is a marvel, not least of which because she had to overcome so much in order to acquire the education necessary to first assist her older brother in his celestial observations, but then to make discoveries of her own.

Aside from her actual contributions to scientific knowledge (comets and nebulae galore), she, alongside women like Mary Somerville (another unconventional heroine), started making modest inroads into existing male establishments such as the RAS. She was awarded their gold medal in 1828 and was made honorary member in 1835 – would you believe no other gold medal was awarded to a woman until 1996?!

She was recognized widely as an intellectual force in her own right, but still, her famous catalogue of nebulae (1802) was published under her brother’s name (sigh…). And yet – how many people do you know who have a moon carter named after them?

(Hint – another unconventional historical heroine, but that’s another story…)

Caroline Herschel (1750-1848)

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