Herschel, Caroline (1750–1848)

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Editor: Anne Commire
Date: 2002
Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Pages: 5
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Herschel, Caroline (1750–1848)

German-born astronomer who assisted her brother, Sir William Herschel, in the discovery of the planet Uranus, was the first woman to discover a comet, and is credited with identifying eight comets and some 2,500 nebulae. Name variations: Lina. Pronunciation: HER-shel. Born Caroline Lucretia Herschel on March 16, 1750, in Gartengemeinde, Hanover, Germany; died on January 9, 1848, in Hanover; daughter of Isaac (a musician) and Anna Ilse Herschel; sister of Sir William Herschel and aunt of Sir John Herschel, both famous astronomers; tutored by her father; no formal education; never married; no children.

Caroline Herschel Caroline Herschel Hulton Archive/Getty Images


gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1828); honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society (1835); honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy (1838); gold medal of science from the king of Prussia (1846).

Moved from Hanover to Bath, England, to live with brother William (August 1772); had singing career in England (1773–82); served as assistant to William in astronomy (1782–1822); discovered her first comet (August 1, 1786); completed Index of stars in "British Catalogue" (1798); completed list of errata with 561 omitted stars, published by the Royal Society (1798); retired to Hanover (1822–48).

Caroline Herschel was a pioneer in the field of astronomy. She was the first woman to discover a comet, and by the end of her life she had been credited with the discovery of seven more. She also identified and catalogued some 2,500 nebulae. She was the key assistant to her brother Sir William Herschel and was instrumental in his discovery of the planet Uranus in 1782. Although she received limited recognition for her work during her old age, for the most part her contributions have been overshadowed by those of her brother and his equally famous son, Sir John Herschel.

Born in Hanover, Germany, on March 16, 1750, Caroline Lucretia Herschel was the youngest of eight children; she had four brothers and three sisters. Her father Isaac Herschel was an ex-soldier who had fought in the War of AustrianPage 267  |  Top of Article Succession with George II (king of England and elector of Hanover). Wounded during the war, Isaac later supported his family by giving music lessons. He taught Caroline to read and to write and gave her violin lessons. Caroline's mother Anna Ilse Herschel, however, showed little patience for academic pursuits. She insisted that Caroline take part in the day-to-day running of the Herschel household, teaching her sewing and knitting. Caroline was set to work darning her brother's stockings; she was so little that the stockings reached the floor while she stood finishing the toe.

Herschel's early memories of her family were less than happy. She received harsh treatment from all of her brothers except William, 11 years her elder, who showed great affection for his little sister. Of her family members, William and her father Isaac were the only two whom she regarded with fondness. When her father died in March 1767, Caroline was heartbroken. She agonized over her future, reflecting in her journal that the only marketable skills she had were in housework. But her plain looks and lack of a dowry narrowed her chances of matrimony considerably. Constant toil in the Herschel household made it impossible for her to acquire any formal education. So, at 17, Caroline began taking secret lessons in embroidery, hair-braiding, and dressmaking from a consumptive girl who lived across the street, in hopes that one day she could secure a position as a governess in some family "where the want of a knowledge of French would be no objection."

In 1772, Herschel's dim prospects brightened when her brother William, who had settled in England to work as a concert director, invited her to join him in order to train for a career in singing. Flabbergasted by the offer, Caroline expressed grave doubts that she could suddenly be transformed from a domestic drudge into a prima donna. She was determined, nevertheless, to seize the opportunity to make a better life for herself and began exercising her voice. She practiced by mimicking the solo parts of violin concertos with a gag between her teeth, ignoring the sneers of her disbelieving relatives. When Caroline's mother balked at releasing such a useful household servant, William agreed to give Anna monetary compensation with which she could hire a housekeeper in her daughter's place.

Finally, filled with trepidation and doubt that she had made the right decision in venturing to another country and abandoning all that was familiar, Caroline left Hanover for England in August of 1772. After an uncomfortable journey with William across the English Channel, she recalled being "thrown like balls by two sailors" onto English soil. They finally arrived in Bath "almost annihilated." Caroline immediately began intensive training in English, arithmetic, and singing. In return for her room, board and lessons, she took over household duties for her brothers William and Alexander and responsibility for shopping and accounts-keeping. Household duties were shared with her brother's housekeeper, a temperamental Welsh woman whose brusque manner often wreaked havoc on Caroline's fragile nerves.

Caroline Herschel Caroline Herschel

Herschel gradually became accustomed to a more cosmopolitan existence in England, although she was continually appalled by the expense of clothing and equipage. She described the great majority of society women whom she met as "very little better than idiots." While working strenuously at her singing and deportment lessons, she concentrated especially on removing the last vestiges of her German accent from her English pronunciation. Within only a few months, she began singing soprano parts at small parties in Bath. In the winter of 1772, she sang the lead in concerts conducted by William in Bath and Bristol and was so successful that she received an offer to appear in a music festival in Birmingham. She refused, expressing her resolution to sing only with her brother.

Before making her formal debut, Herschel studied under a dancing mistress responsible for drilling her "for a gentlewoman." With her debut in 1773, she was soon hailed as "an ornament to the stage." She began to hope that she had finally found a way in which to make an independent life. An invaluable asset to her brother William, Herschel arranged rehearsals and copied scores, while working indefatigably to maintain the household.

But no sooner had her musical star begun to rise than her hopes for a successful singing career were dashed. By the mid-1770s, more of William's attention had turned away from music, toward astronomy. Over 50 years later, Caroline Herschel would recall: "I have been thoroughly annoyed and hindered in my endeavoursPage 268  |  Top of Article at perfecting myself in any branch of knowledge by which I could hope to gain a creditable livelihood." Her utter devotion to William, however, prevented her from voicing her disappointment, and she set out to assist her brother in his new obsession with grinding telescope mirrors for astronomical observations. Although she and William still performed until 1782, William gradually gave up music to spend his time perfecting his new pursuit.

The art of mirror grinding was a demanding one, requiring long hours of patient labor to produce a mirror free from distortions. William worked tirelessly polishing his mirrors, while Herschel read aloud to him from Don Quixote and The Arabian Nights and fed him his meals "by putting victuals by bits into his mouth." As William learned to master this new craft, Herschel learned with him and eventually became proficient at copying scientific papers, interpreting tables, and performing complex mathematical calculations involving trigonometry, logarithms, and conversions from sidereal (time measured by the diurnal motion of stars) into solar time (a sidereal day is about four minutes shorter than a solar day, with hours, minutes, and seconds all proportionally shorter). She humbly stated, "I became in time as useful a member of the workshop as a boy might to his master in the first year of his apprenticeship," and lamented that her memory was like "sand, in which everything could be inscribed with ease but as easily effaced." She admitted to always carrying a copy of the multiplication tables in her dress pocket; but, nevertheless, her calculations were unfailingly accurate.

With his sister's help, William discovered the planet Uranus in 1782, and from then on he devoted himself exclusively to astronomical observation. They moved from Bath to Datchet, where they inhabited a "dilapidated gazebo" with damp walls and falling plaster. Beginning in 1782, Herschel was allowed to use a small telescope to make her own observations. In late 1783, her efforts were rewarded with the discovery of two nebulae (clouds of interstellar gas and dust), one in Andromeda and the other in Cetus. These discoveries created in her a real and abiding enthusiasm for her new profession.

In December 1783, William began constructing a 20-foot telescope, while his sister carried instruments, kept time and made measurements, regardless of exhaustion, cold or hunger. She often stayed awake all night for days on end, without complaint, merely remarking, "I had the comfort to see that my brother was satisfied with my endeavours to assist him." Once, when she was running through the snow, she fell over a large hook, which tore such a deep wound in her leg that the doctor declared it would entitle a soldier to six weeks' convalescence. Herschel cursorily dressed the wound and stayed at home for a few nights, expressing relief in her journal that the cloudy weather ensured that William "was no loser through the accident."

As she discovered increasing numbers of nebulae, eventually 2,500 in all, she became more and more devoted to arranging catalogues to aid William's observations. She also wrote out his papers to send to the Royal Astronomical Society and kept track of all his discoveries and calculations. During the summer months, she assisted him in relentless mirror grinding and so excelled in this craft that William eventually let her finish one herself. In her brother's absence, she never tired of sweeping the skies for comets, squeezing her own observations in between her regular duties of maintaining the larger telescopes for William, and keeping track of his observations.

During one of William's absences, on August 1, 1786, Herschel spotted a round, hazy object which she took to be a comet. Her observations during the next 24 hours confirmed this discovery. Over the following 11 years, she discovered a total of eight comets. She was the first woman to achieve this, and as such she gained immediate renown. As proud as she was of her comets, however, Herschel always belittled her own achievements in favor of her brother. She was described by contemporaries as "very little, very gentle, very modest, very ingenuous" and "by no means prepossessing, but an excellent, kind-hearted creature." In recognition of her discovery, King George III officially appointed her as her brother's assistant and awarded her a salary of £50 per year. She was thrilled to receive "the first money I ever in all my lifetime thought myself to be at liberty to spend to my own liking."

William married the following year, and although Herschel expressed deep regret that she "had to give up the place of his housekeeper" and move into her own lodgings, she eventually became devoted to her sister-in-law. She continued to come to William's observatory each night to assist in his observations. In 1796, she began compiling an index to the stars listed in the "British Catalogue" and added a list of errata with 561 omitted stars. The Royal Astronomical Society financed the publication of her useful compilations in 1798.

Her friendship with Madame Beckendorff, an old friend from Hanover who became one of Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz 'sPage 269  |  Top of Article ladies-in-waiting, brought the Herschels into a close friendship with the royal family. The queen and princesses were especially charmed by Herschel's company, and they required her attendance on so many occasions that they became something of an inconvenience. Her popularity with the royal family put her in direct contact with dignitaries and scientists from around the world.

In 1809, Herschel's brother Dietrich, "ruined in health, spirit and fortune," arrived in England, and, as she recalled, "according to the old Hanoverian custom, I was the only one from whom all domestic comforts were expected." He stayed with her for over four years, and she gave a small glimpse at the hardship his arrival brought to her life with her later reflection, "I hope I acquitted myself to everybody's satisfaction…. [T]he time I bestowed on Dietrich wastaken entirely from my sleep, or what is generally allowed for meals, which were mostly taken running, or sometimes forgotten entirely. But why think of it now?"

By 1817, Caroline Herschel was increasingly absorbed with concern over William's health. By the following year, he was evidently aware that his end was near, and he charged his sister with the task of sorting through every shelf and drawer of his study and making a list of their contents. William became a veritable invalid, but Herschel never ceased her devoted ministrations, noting in her journal with hope when he "walked with a firmer step than usual" and with sorrow when he was "unwell" and "low in spirits."

One month before William died in 1822, Herschel surrendered her entire property worth £500 to her brother Dietrich and announced her intention to retire to Hanover. She was then 73 and did not expect to live much longer. No one was more surprised than she when she survived another quarter of a century, and she soon lived to regret her impetuous decision. "From the moment I set foot on German ground," she recalled, "I found I was alone." Herschel had lived in England for 50 years, and she complained at "not finding Hanover or anyone in it, like what I left when the best of brothers took me with him to England in August, 1772."

Determined to stick to her promise, she remained in Hanover, leading a "solitary and useless life." She most regretted being unable to continue her work, remarking in a letter to her nephew John, himself an astronomer, that "at the heavens there is no getting, for the high roofs of the opposite houses." While in her new home, however, she completed a work which proved to be of immeasurable assistance to her nephew. She created a catalogue, arranged into zones, of all of William's nebulae and clusters, which her nephew Sir John Herschel would use as the foundation of his "General Catalogue" published in 1864. Using her Index, Sir John recalled, "I learned fully to appreciate the skill, diligence and accuracy which that indefatigable lady brought to bear on a task which only the most boundless devotion could have induced her to undertake, and enabled her to accomplish." For her work, Herschel received the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828. In 1835, she was made an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society, and three years later she was admitted into the Royal Irish Academy. This recognition was somewhat discomfiting to her. "I cannot help crying out loud to myself, every now and then, What is that for?" she wrote in her journal, and, later, "I think it is almost mocking me to look upon me as a Member of the Academy; I that have lived these eighteen years without finding so much as a single comet."

In her retirement, she indulged her old love of music and attended concerts and plays with such regularity that her absence generated public concern. She also entertained scientists and learned men, all of whom paid her a visit if ever in Hanover. Nevertheless, she regretted her "idle life" and "painful solitude," noting that "the few, few stars I can get at out of my window only cause me vexation, for to look for the small ones on the globe my eyes will not serve me any longer." One of her few consolations was in following the career of her nephew. When she heard of his upcoming trip to the Cape of Good Hope, she exclaimed, "If I were thirty or forty years younger, and could go too!" and she called his successful journey into the southern hemisphere "like a drop of oil supplying my expiring lamp." But she still thought of her brother William and exclaimed, "I fall into a reverie on what my dear nephew's father would have felt if such letters could have been directed to him, and cannot suppress my wish that his life instead of mine had been spared until this present moment."

As Herschel reached her 90s, she focused increasingly on the past. She wrote to her nephew in 1842: "all my bones ache so that I can hardly crawl," and she spent her time writing books of "Recollections" of Sir William Herschel's life. At age 92, she embarked upon a history of the Herschels which she was prevented from finishing by physical decline. For her 96th birthday, she received the gold medal of science from the king of Prussia. Caroline Herschel died peacefully on January 9, 1848. By her request, she was buried with a lock of "her revered brother's hair, and an old almanac used by her father."

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In 1840, the seven-foot reflecting telescope with which Herschel made most of her discoveries was given to the Royal Astronomical Society. Some 40 years later, in 1889, Minor planet No. 281 was named "Lucretia" in her honor. Her "Journals," "Recollections" and correspondence are the only detailed materials available which chronicle her own and William's careers.

Throughout her life, Caroline Herschel remained a woman of iron will and boundless energy, whose sole desire seemed to be in helping others. In an age when women scientists were virtually unheard of, she was a dauntless pioneer in the field of astronomy. Yet, she downplayed her own achievements, remarking, "I did nothing for my brother but what a well-trained puppy-dog would have done; that is to say, I did what he commanded me." She wrote once to Sir John: "My only reason for saying so much of myself is to show with what miserable assistance your father made shift to obtain the means of exploring the heavens." It was this indomitable woman, however, whose work provided the foundation for the contribution of the Herschels to the field of astronomy.


Clerke, Agnes Mary. The Herschels and Modern Astronomy. NY: Macmillan, 1895.

Herschel, John F. Herschel At the Cape: Diaries and Correspondence of Sir John Herschel, 1834–1838. Evans, David, et al., eds. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1969.

Herschel, Mrs. John. Mrs. John Herschel's Memoir and Correspondence of Caroline Herschel. London, 1876.

Kimberly Estep Spangler, Assistant Professor of History and Chair of the Division of Religion and Humanities at Friends University, Wichita, Kansas

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2591304070