1848 – Caroline Herschel, the first lady of astronomy, passes away at the ripe old age of 97. The younger sister of noted astronomer, William Herschel, who discovered the planet Georgian, later renamed Uranus.
Caroline worked as her brother’s assistant throughout his entire career, while making significant contributions of her own; including discovering several comets and improving the system of star charting (still used to this day).
Several history sites and publications credit Caroline with being the first woman to discover a comet. Technically that honor goes to a woman some 80 years earlier named Maria Kirch. Kirch’s husband had taken credit for his wife’s discovery for several years causing this common historical inaccuracy.
Caroline was however the first woman to be paid for work in astronomy, when King George III issued her a meager salary of $7,000 yr (in 2017 dollars). This was however quite an accomplishment considering at the time few men received wages for scientific services.
Caroline Herschel was a reluctant scientist. Her and her brother William originally pursued music careers, and did so with a decent level of success. When William abandoned music to pursue his hobby of astronomy, Caroline reluctantly followed William into his new career. It would be quite some time before she would find any enjoyment in it.
When her brother eventually found a wife, they had a son, John, and Caroline was very close with him. Inspired by his Aunt (and Father), John Herschel grew up to be a well-known scientist. In fact, aside from making countless scientific contributions in his own right, his work would inspire Charles Darwin, and so on, and so on.
Bonus Content –
I ran across a 1968 poem, written by Adrienne Rich in regards to Caroline Herschel and her role in the world in which she lived. Generally I’m a not a big fan of poetry but I’d be remiss not to include it in this, a heartfelt tribute to a remarkable woman in history.
By Adrienne Rich
Thinking of Caroline Herschel (1750—1848)
astronomer, sister of William; and others.
A woman in the shape of a monster
a monster in the shape of a woman
the skies are full of them
a woman ‘in the snow
among the Clocks and instruments
or measuring the ground with poles’
in her 98 years to discover
she whom the moon ruled
levitating into the night sky
riding the polished lenses
Galaxies of women,
there doing penance for impetuousness
ribs chilled in those spaces of the mind
‘virile, precise and absolutely certain’
from the mad webs of Uranusborg
encountering the NOVA
every impulse of light exploding
from the core
as life flies out of us
Tycho whispering at last
‘Let me not seem to have lived in vain’
What we see, we see
and seeing is changing
the light that shrivels a mountain
and leaves a man alive
Heartbeat of the pulsar heart
sweating through my body
The radio impulse
pouring in from Taurus
I am bombarded yet I stand
I have been standing all my life
in the direct path of a battery of signals
the most accurately transmitted most
untranslatable language in the universe
I am a galactic cloud so deep so involuted
that a light wave could take 15 years
to travel through me And has taken
I am an instrument in the shape of a woman
trying to translate pulsations into images
for the relief of the body
and the reconstruction of the mind.