Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Caroline Herschel, "Whose Eyes . . . Sought . . . the Starry Skies"

Caroline Lucretia Herschel (born 15 March 1750)

Caroline Herschel's first career, which she shared with her brother William, was in music. Born in Hanover, Germany, the two younger Herschels, like their father, were musicians--William eventually moved to England as an organist, conductor, and music teacher. At his invitation, Caroline joined him in 1772, relocating to Bath where, in her words, she could act as "a useful singer for his winter concerts and oratorios" (for the full text of Caroline Herschel's memoirs, click here).

An 1829 engraving of Caroline Herschel
When William left music for astronomy, his sister followed him, first as his assistant, secretary, and general housekeeper--polishing and mounting his telescope, copying books for him, organizing and recording his observations. But she developed into an astronomer herself, making her own series of astronomical discoveries, including eight comets and deep sky objects

After William's death in 1822, Caroline returned to Hanover where she continued her astronomical work.

In 1828, she was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society of London, its highest honor. The Society also elected her an honorary member in 1835. (She was an "honorary member" because the Royal Astronomical Society did not permit women to become members until 1945.)

Three years later, in 1838, Herschel was also made an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy. In 1846, when she was ninety-six years old, she was awarded the Gold Medal for Science by the king of Prussia. 

Herschel died in 1848. She wrote her own epitaph: "The gaze of her whose eyes are now opened sought while here below the starry skies."

On the subject of women in science, you may want to begin with Richard Holmes's article in The Guardian, "The Royal Society's Lost Women Scientists," which I've linked to here and above. There are several biographies, including Michael Hoskins's Caroline Herschel: Priestess of the New Heavens and his dual biography of the Herschels, Discoverers of the Universe: William and Caroline Herschel. A link to Herschel's own memoirs and correspondence, available via Google books,  is provided above.

On this day, you may consider reading Adrienne Rich's "Planetarium," a poem with the epigram, "Thinking of Caroline Herschel (1750-1848) astronomer, sister of William; and others" (for the poem, click here).

Update, 14 November 2021: In its latest episode, the BBC In Our Time podcast features a discussion of William and Caroline Herschel, "the pioneering brother and sister who, between them, discovered Uranus, comets, double stars and infrared light at the end of the 18th century." To listen, click here.

New Catalogue Galaxy 891, in Andromeda, discovered in 1783 by Caroline Herschel

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