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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 As historical documents indicate, the musical Herschel family was in poverty-sticken Germany at the time and Caroline served more as a housemaid than a family member.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 career vanished:

"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 she states:

"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.