The First Lady of Astronomy
Born on March 16, 1750, Carolyn Lucretia Herschel became a role model for us all, but she never knew it. At age 10, young Caroline suffered from typhus - never growing taller
than 4' 3". As historical documents indicate, the musical Herschel
family was in poverty-sticken Germany at the time and Caroline served
more as a housemaid than a family member. Although she was often beat
by her mother for not doing her job fast enough, her father used to
sneak her aside for music lessons. When her older brother William broke
away to seek employment in England, he never forgot about his little
sister, training her to be a singer and bringing her to his side.
When Caroline arrived in England, she became a successful soprano, but
served her brother for 20 years as housekeeper, bookeeper and secretary.
As Sir William's musical career gave way to his passion of astronomy,
she also assisted him in making telescopes and by the time her brother
had discovered Uranus, all thought of continuing her own independent
"I had not had time to consider the consequence of giving up the
prospect of making myself independent by becoming a useful member of the
musical profession. I was of course left solely to amuse myself with my
own thoughts, which were anything but cheerful. I found I was to be
trained for an assistant astronomer, and by way of encouragement a
telescope adapted for 'sweeping' was given me."
Through her telescope, Caroline Herschel created a world of her own;
being the first woman to discover a comet and then going on to find 8
more. For her brother, she took copious notes and prepared his findings
for publication, and wrote the Index to Flamsteed's work. Caroline's
love of astronomy grew and she went on to catalog 3 nebulae and 20 deep
sky objects she discovered independently - many of which were
incorporated into her nephew John's work. At least 14 of the objects in
the Herschel catalog bear her signature and William's own note: "Lina
found it." To preserve her brother's night vision, Carolyn took on the
arduous task of setting down on paper William's directions and
descriptions, yet she was just as avid at the eyepiece. From her memoirs
"I knew too little of the real heavens to be able to point out every
object so as to find it again without losing too much time by consulting
the Atlas. But all these troubles were removed when I knew my brother to
be at no great distance making observations with his various instruments
on double stars, planets, etc., and I could have his assistance
immediately when I found a nebula, or cluster of stars, of which I
intended to give a catalogue... "
It took many years for her to be recognized for her astronomical
achievements, but even though she lived a long life she never overcame
what she though was her own shortcomings. Her last recorded words were,
"Tell them that I am good for nothing." Well, Caroline... Don't you
believe that. Over a quarter of a millenium later, we still remember a
brave little woman who didn't stand in her brother's shadow. She stood beside it.
Won't you help by contributing your own ideas, stories, interviews, funds and advertising to Women In Astronomy? No one should end life feeling like Carolyn Herschel.