Radical Woman of the Day: Caroline Herschel

On this day in 1750 was born Caroline Lucretia Herschel, German-born astronomer and first woman to be awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. Beginning by assisting her brother Sir William Herschel—also a notable astronomer and telescope builder—by making calculations, polishing mirrors, and mounting telescopes, she went on to make significant discoveries of her own.

Herschel’s growth was stunted by a childhood bout of typhus, so she grew to only 4 feet 10 inches tall, which her family regarded as a deformity that would probably prevent her marriage. Confined to serving in the family kitchen, she eventually moved out when William invited her to live with him in England, where he was then working as a musician. The two developed their interest in astronomy together, and Herschel progressed from assisting William’s work to discovering eight comets on her own throughout the 1780s and ’90s. Her contributions gained enough recognition for the state to award her a salary of £50 per year, making her the first female scientist to be so compensated.

In 1797 William asked Herschel to cross-reference a star catalog by John Flamsteed, which contained many discrepencies and had been published in two volumes—the catalog of stars and Flamsteed’s original observations—making it difficult to follow. Herschel wrote the cross-reference, including a list of errata and an additional catalog of over 560 stars Flamsteed had not been able to include, and it was published by the Royal Society in 1798.

In 1828 the Royal Astronomical Society presented Herschel with the Gold Medal in recognition of her catalog of nebulae; no othe woman would win the award until Vera Rubin in 1996. In 1835, she and Mary Somerville became the first female honorary members of the Royal Astronomical Society, and in 1838 Herschel was elected to the Royal Irish Academy. In 1846 the King of Prussia awarded her the Gold Medal for Science. She has an asteroid and a moon crater named after her.