Caroline Herschel (1750-1848)

Caroline Herschel is known to have reinvented women’s roles in astronomy. Paired up with her brother William, Caroline wasn’t just his assistant. She became a vital member of their partnership.
Born in Hanover, Germany, Caroline Herschel (1750-1848) was uneducated. herschel_c1She soon went to England to live with her brother, William, at the age of twenty-two. He is known to have reported to the office of the court astronomer of King George III of England. Caroline’s brother taught her mathematics so she could execute the calculations for his observations. arts-graphics-2008_1132005aDuring her leisure hours, she studied the heavens with a small Newtonian reflector, which led her to make her own observations and astronomical discoveries. When the Herschels first started observing the sky for clusters of stars or nebulae, only about one hundred were known to mankind. After twenty years of their joint efforts, this number increased to over 2500. Perhaps Caroline’s greatest accomplishment was discovering (eight or nine) comets. In fact, she was the first woman to ever discover a comet. King George III was so impressed by this that he gave her a royal gratuity. In 1798, she presented an index including a catalog of 560 stars omitted from the British Catalogue to the Royal Astronomical Society in London. Some thirty years later, the Royal Astronomical Society presented her with a gold medal for her catalog.
When they bestowed this honorary membership on her, the French Astronomer, Alexandre Aubert, wrote to Caroline as soon as he had seen the first comet she had discovered: “You have immortalized your name, and you deserve such a reward from the being who has ordered all these things to move as we find them, for your assiduity in the business of astronomy.”
After Caroline’s death in 1848, it took nearly seventy years before society opened its doors to women in the field of astronomy on the same terms as men.

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