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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The First Paid Woman Scientist

Caroline Herschel (1750 - 1848)
Portrait from 1829

Caroline Herschel was dealt an odd hand in life.  She came down with typhus, a bacterial disease caused by fleas or lice, when she was ten.  This affected her growth, and when she was an adult she was four feet three inches tall.  Her parents had dismal predictions for her future:  she would never marry, and at best would be a house servant.  Fortunately she had a loving brother.

William Herschel (1738 - 1822)
Portrait by Lemuel Francis Abbott

William Herschel was an established music teacher and organist in Bath.  He composed numerous musical works, including 24 symphonies and many concertos, but apart from a few oboe concertos his music is largely forgotten.  What he is remembered for is his work as an astronomer.  He discovered Uranus, then thought a planet but recently demoted.  He built telescopes, more than four hundred in his lifetime, and made huge advances in their development.  He went on to discover two moons of Saturn, two moons of Uranus, among many important scientific discoveries.

Caroline went to live with her brother while he was a music teacher.  He taught her to sing and she was the principal singer of his oratorio concerts.  She earned quite a reputation as a singer, but was too shy to accept any engagements.

She did, however, prove to be very competent in polishing mirrors and mounting telescopes, and offered great support to William.  Eventually she learned to record his observations.  He insisted, however, that she work on her own.  She went on to discover eight comets, some which are named after her.  King George III granted her an annual salary for her work.  Thus she became the first female scientist to be paid for her work.

Model of telescope William Herschel used to discover Uranus.

A decade later she undertook the task of reviewing and correcting a star catalog published by John Flamsteed.  Her edition was published by the Royal Society in 1798, and in addition to an index of every star listed by Flamsteed, she added 560 stars and a list of errata.

Photo of a telescope that belonged to
Caroline Herschel by Geni

After her brother’s death in 1822, she returned to her native Hanover and continued to confirm William’s findings.  She also produced a catalog of nebula to aide her nephew, John Herschel, in his work.  In 1828 the Royal Astronomical Society presented her with a Gold Medal for this work.  No other woman would be awarded the Gold Medal until 1996.

In 1835 she was one of two women to be elected to honorary membership in the Royal Astronomical Society – they were the first women to be honorary members.  Three years later she was also elected as a member of the Royal Irish Academy.  In 1846 she was awarded the Gold Medal for Science by the King of Prussia.  She was 96 years old.  One amazing thing about this woman is that she never learned to multiply.  She carried a multiplication chart with her to work from.

Caroline Herschel, as her parents predicted, never did marry.  But she never became a house servant either.  When she died at age 98, it was in good physical and mental health, and without suffering.  MacArthur Fellow and prize-winning poet Adrienne Rich in 1968 wrote a poem about her called “Planetarium”.

Caroline Hershel in 1876, at age 92.

The Herschels’ former residence in Bath, where their telescopes were made and Uranus was first observed, is now the Hershel Museum of Astronomy.  In the basement is the original workshop and there is also a reproduction of the 7-foot telescope William made and used to discover Uranus.

The Herschel Museum in Bath
Image courtesy of Nick Veitch

Caroline Herschel was lucky to have in her a life man who trusted and believed in her, and encouraged her to be all that she could be.  She was smart enough to take advantage of it.
Except where noted, all images courtesy of Wikipedia

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