The German astronomer, Caroline Lucretia Herschel (1750-1848) was born in Hanover, Germany. At the age of ten, Caroline had typhus, a disease that stunted her growth; she never grew past four foot three inches (1.28 m).
Because of her height, Caroline’s father believed that she was not pretty enough for a man to ever want to marry her, so he informed her that she would live her live as an old maid (a woman who never marries). His prediction came true, but certainly this was Caroline’s choice because she lived a long productive live with many friends and admirers.
Caroline’s father wanted all of his children, 4 sons and 2 daughters, to be educated. Caroline’s mother did not share this view, in fact, at this time it was thought that a girl’s brain was not large enough to learn the things that boys could learn and some even thought it would make a girl sick if she tried to study too much. So, Carloline’s four brothers were all trained to be musicians like their father and Caroline and her sister were trained to do household tasks.
Caroline’s father privately encouraged Caroline to learn and introduced her to the wonders of astronomy. Astronomy is the study of celestial bodies, which is everything in the heavens, such as planets, moons, asteroids, stars, suns, and comets. Caroline is quoted as saying that she recalls that on a clear frosty night, her father pointed out several beautiful constellation as well as a comet that was visible. Little did either of them know that Caroline would be the first woman to find and report a comet and that she would find 8 in her life time.
At twenty-two, Caroline moved to Bath, England to live with her brother, William. She was to be his housekeeper. William was a music teacher and unlike his mother, he wanted his sister to be more than just a housekeeper. So, William gave Caroline voice lessons, and she became a famous singer in Bath. William’s hobby was astronomy and in his spare time he taught himself mathematics and astronomy. He also taught Caroline. William became a skilled telescope maker and it is said that while polishing the mirror for one of his large telescopes, Caroline fed him by hand so that he did not have to stop and eat. William built the largest reflecting telescopes of his time.
After a while, Caroline’s job changed from being William’s housekeeper to being his assistant. She calculated the positions of her brother’s and her own discoveries and prepared them for publication. Even though Caroline was a very intelligent woman, she seemed not to be able to learn her multiplication tables. So, she had the multiplication tables written on a sheet of paper and kept this sheet handy.
In 1781, using one his large reflecting telescopes, William discovered the planet now called Uranus. Because of this discovery, King George III gave him a modest yearly salary of 200 pounds so he could be a full time astronomer. In 1786, Caroline discovered her first comet, which some described as the “first lady’s comet.” As a result of this discovery, in 1787 King George III gave her a yearly salary of 50 pounds so she could be a full time assistant to William. She was the first woman to be so recognized.
Caroline received many honors for her scientific achievements, including an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1835 and the Royal Irish Academy in 1838. On her 96th birthday, she received a letter from the King of Prussia, recognizing her for her valuable service and giving her the Gold Medal of Science for her life’s accomplishments. A minor planet was named Lucretia in 1889 in her honor. Recently a lunar crater was named after Caroline.