Caroline Herschel, Cosmic Feminist

Caroline Herschel Uranus Telescope

by The AstroTwins and Matthew Swann

History books credit the discovery of Uranus to astronomer Sir William Herschel. But did you know that Herschel’s younger sister Caroline was an important astronomer in her own right and the largely unacknowledged force behind their handcrafted telescopes?

It was the genius of astronomer Caroline Herschel, who also ground and polished the mirrors of their reflecting telescopes by hand and assisted her brother as they mapped the constellations, which made possible all their important and numerous astronomical discoveries.

Caroline Lucretia Herschel was born in the town of Hanover, Germany, on March 16, 1750. At the age of ten, Caroline was struck with typhus, which stunted her growth, so that she never grew past four-foot-three.

Caroline’s family assumed that she would never marry due to her physical challenges. However, her father wished her to receive an education to foster her undeniable brilliance. So he took the occasion to tutor Caroline alongside her brother William Herschel, laying the educational foundation for their stellar careers as the preeminent astronomers of their era.

Among her many historic accomplishments, Caroline was the first woman to discover a comet, discovering eight comets in total and three nebulae over the course of her scientific career. Caroline also created star catalogs of astronomical discoveries that are still in use today.

Caroline Herschel was the first woman to:

  • • receive a salary as a scientist
    • hold a government position in England
    • publish scientific findings in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society
    • be awarded a Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1828)
    • be named an Honorary Member of the Royal Astronomical Society (1835, with Mary Somerville)

Herschel was also named an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy in 1838. The King of Prussia presented her with a Gold Medal for Science on the occasion of her 96th birthday.

Caroline Herschel is also believed to be the creator of the 32 Urania’s Mirror star chart cards, which Astrostyle has reimagined as an all-ages coloring book that tells Caroline’s story.