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Caroline Lucretia Herschel
(March 16, 1750 - January 8, 1848) Germany - U.K.

Caroline Herschel



Caroline was the daughter of Isaac Herschel and Anna Ilse Moritzen. She was sister of William Herschel and the aunt of John Fredrick Herschel. Caroline's father Isaac was an oboist in the Hanovarian Foot Guards and rose to become the bandmaster. Although a man with no formal education, he tried hard to give his four sons and two daughters a good education. His interests in music, philosophy and astronomy led to lively conversations in their home but Caroline's mother disapproved of learning in general and although she reluctantly accepted that her four sons should have some education, she strongly opposed her daughters doing anything other than the household chores.

Caroline's four brothers were all brought up to be musicians while Caroline showed an enthusiasm for knowledge which her father tried to satisfy despite all her mother's efforts to ensure that she did nothing but household tasks.

After the French occupation of Hanover in 1757, Isaac was occupied fighting the French and so was not at home. William escaped to England, where he became a music teacher, and Caroline was left under the control of her mother who sent her to learn to knit and otherwise kept her fully occupied with household chores. In 1760 Isaac returned home in poor health and Caroline essentially lived the life of a servant until he died in 1767. The death of her father seems to have made Caroline realise that she had to take some control of her own life and she took lessons in dressmaking and studied to qualify as a governess. However, fitting in the studies while her mother demanded so much work from her proved a great strain.

In 1766 her brother William became an organist in Bath and, in 1772, Caroline joined him there. She made this move despite strong protests from her mother. Caroline had always been very close to William and, after arriving in Bath, she trained as a singer receiving lessons from her brother. William taught Caroline more than musical skills. Now he began to teach Caroline English and mathematics while he himself became more and more involved with astronomy.

Slowly Caroline turned more and more towards helping William with his astronomical activities while he continued to teach her algebra, geometry and trigonometry. In particular Caroline studied spherical trigonometry which would be important for reducing astronomical observations.

Almost inevitably Caroline's role changed from looking after William to helping him with his scientific activities which soon occupied every available moment. William gave her a telescope with which she began to make observations, in particular searching for comets making methodical sweeps of the sky.

In August 1786, Caroline discovered her first comet which was described by some as the "first lady's comet". This discovery brought Caroline a certain degree of fame, and articles were written about her. In 1787 King George III gave Caroline a 50 pounds per year salary as assistant to William.

In the following year William married Mary Pitt and Caroline's life changed markedly. Initially Caroline was deeply affected by the marriage, and moved out to lodgings at Upton. Eventually the relationship between the two ladies - Mary and Caroline - warmed ...

In total Caroline discovered eight comets between 1786 and 1797 and she then embarked on a new project of cross-referencing and correcting the star catalogue which had been produced by Flamsteed. In 1798 Caroline submitted to the Royal Society an Index to Flamsteed's Observations of the Fixed Stars together with a list of 560 stars which had been omitted.

She was the guest of Maskelyne at the Royal Observatory in 1799 and a guest of members of the Royal Family at various times. Caroline returned to Hanover after William's death in 1822. She completed her catalogue of 2500 nebulae and, in 1828, the Royal Astronomical Society awarded her its gold medal for this work. In 1846 she also received from the King of Prussia the Large Gold Medal for science.

A minor planet was named Lucretia in 1889 in Caroline Lucretia Herschel's honour, a fitting tribute one who had contributed so much yet had so little personal ambition that she disliked praise directed towards her least it detract from her brother William.


Source: from an article by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson

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