Visible Women

Forgotten Women: The star-gazer who discovered eight comets

Posted by
Anna-Marie Crowhurst
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Forgotten Women is a series dedicated to giving women of history the exposure they deserve. This week, we take a look at the life of Caroline Herschel, the first woman to earn a living as a scientist. 

Her brother might have discovered Uranus, but thanks to her own triumphs, Caroline Herschel became the first woman to have a career as a scientist. 

William Herschel was the first person to identify Uranus as a planet. But history has neglected his astonishing comet-hunting sister, Caroline Herschel, the first woman to earn a living as a scientist. Caroline Herschel is basically our Georgian star-gazing heroine of dreams.

The Herschels were German, born in Hanover; Caroline arrived 12 years after her brother, in 1750. As a child Caroline suffered smallpox, which left her heavily scarred, and typhus, which stunted her growth: her full adult height was a tiny 4ft 3in. Caroline, said everyone around her, would obviously never marry her and she was prepared for a life in service, receiving only snatches of education when her brother was having lessons.

After the death of their father, Caroline, then 22, followed her brother to the fashionable spa resort of Bath, in England. William set up as a musician and composer, performing at the Assembly Rooms for genteel ladies and gentlemen. Following his lead, Caroline worked as a soprano singer.

William began to teach himself astronomy, making his own telescopes to search for double stars from the back garden. It was Caroline’s job to polish the telescopes and record his findings, as well as handle the calculations: she had 
a gift for mathematics. After years of celestial dabbling, William’s breakthrough occurred one clear night in 1781 – and it was Caroline who recorded that a new planet had appeared in the sky. The discovery of Uranus (“Herschel” didn’t catch on as a name) earned William
 a knighthood and appointment as ‘King’s Astronomer’ to George III. Caroline became his assistant, working by her brother’s side, noting the rotation of Saturn’s rings and the motion of stars. But she also started conducting her own celestial studies.

In 1786, Caroline had her own breakthrough. She observed a bright shape moving slowly across the night sky. In that instant, she became the first woman to discover a comet – and 35P/ Herschel-Rigollet is named in her honour. This got her a modicum of fame. In grand Georgian tradition, Caroline was immortalised in the satirical cartoon The Female Philosopher, Smelling Out The Comet, which depicts her crouching in front of a telescope, observing heavenly rays coming out of Cupid’s bum (much of Georgian satire is lost on us). No matter, because in 1787, her work was rewarded with a salary of £50 by King George III, making her the first woman to earn her living as a scientist. 

After her brother’s death in 1822, Caroline returned to Hanover to continue recording 
a catalogue of nebulae. She received honorary membership to the boys’ club of the Royal Society and became the first woman to be awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society 
in 1838. Caroline died in 1848 aged 97, having independently discovered eight comets and
 13 deep-sky objects. She wrote her own epitaph, which reads: “The eyes of her
 who is glorified here below turned to
 the starry heavens.” 

The Forgotten Women series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. Find out more about the campaign here, and see more Visible Women stories here.

Main illustration: Josie Jammet