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Caroline Herschel Biography

First Lady of Astronomy


Caroline Lucretia Herschel - Astronomer - Maker of Telescopes – First Lady of Astronomy

Caroline Lucretia Herschel, Astronomer

From an early age, it seemed the deck was stacked against Caroline Lucretia Herschel. Born March 16, 1750 in Hannover, Germany, in an age when women were second class citizens, she was the fifth of six children, including her brother, William. Scarred at the age of three by smallpox, which disfigured her left eye and pock-marked her cheeks, her growth was stunted by typhus when she was ten.

While her father, a military musician tried to provide her, and all his children, with an education in mathematics, music, and French, Caroline’s mother did not see the need for a girl to become educated. She preferred Lina, as she was known, to work as a maid for the family. Thanks to the deformities caused by her illnesses, her parents concluded she would never marry.

The Seven Years' War, which began in 1756 affected the family when Hannover was captured by the French in 1757. Seven year old Caroline’s 19-year-old brother William escaped to England where he began to teach music. Later, Alexander joined him and they frequently performed as musicians.

In 1766, William moved to Bath, England to become organist and choir master at the Octagon Chapel. Six years later, he asked his younger sister to come to Bath and at the age of 22, Caroline Lucretia Herschel moved in with William to act as his housekeeper.

William, an accomplished musician and conductor, gave Caroline voice lessons and trained her in mathematics as well. Despite her physical problems, Caroline became a well known soprano and began to sing professionally. Among her best received works were solo parts in the Messiah and Judas Maccabeus.

Meanwhile, William's hobby of astronomy began taking more and more of his free time. He began making more and more powerful telescopes for his observations. His reputation as a telescope maker grew so great that he quit his job as a musician and devoted all of his time to the making of telescopes and to astronomy. Caroline became his apprentice.

Caroline began to help her brother in the manufacture of telescopes and to share his passion for astronomy. Caroline first served as her brother's apprentice then began to function more and more on her own. She helped her brother develop the modern mathematical approach to astronomy. Although she never memorized her multiplication tables, Caroline performed the complicated calculations from her brother's observations.

On March 13, 1781, William spotted what he first believed to be a comet. After careful observation by himself and other astronomers, it was determined he had discovered a new planet, Uranus. The following year, William was appointed as astronomer to King George III and was granted a royal pension. Giving up his music career, he began to practice astronomy full time, with Caroline by his side.

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