“As much as we need a prosperous economy,
we also need a prosperity of kindness and decency.”
When writing about Caroline Herschel, one always experiences some mixed feelings. The story of her life is both sad and uplifting. Afflicted with a terrible disease at the tender age of ten that affected her physically for the rest of her life and forever dashed her dreams of having her own family, and a renowned astronomer who achieved full recognition and received the highest scientific honors that many scholars don’t even dream of—it’s all the same person.
Caroline Lucretia Herschel was born in Hanover, Germany on 16 March 1750. She was the eighth child of Isaac Herschel, a self-taught oboist and a bandmaster in the Hanoverian Foot Guards, and his wife Anna Ilse Moritzen.
At the age of ten, Caroline stopped growing (her height was four feet three inches) and became blind in her left eye as a result of typhus.
Her mother assumed she would be a house servant and never get married, so she was forbidden from studying French and advanced needlework. Nevertheless, when her mother was not around, Caroline’s father tutored her individually or included her in her brothers’ lessons.
After her father died, in August 1772, Caroline left Hanover and moved to Bath, a city in southwest England, joining her brothers, William and Alexander, who had already made it their permanent residence.
William had two passions that he pursued fervently from a young age: music and astronomy. He masterfully played various instruments and even composed numerous musical works, including 24 symphonies, eventually becoming a Director of Public Concerts in the city of Bath. Caroline assisted her brother as a soprano soloist during his public performances.
In the struggle between his two passions, his affection for astronomy took the upper hand and soon William began spending almost all of his time building telescopes, perfecting this craft to the point of inventing his own refined model, which was considered the best of its time. William also engaged in observational work, using his improved tools to gaze at the stars. Despite her desire to become a professional singer, as a faithful sister, Caroline again assisted her brother. This time in his scientific endeavors.
Aside from helping her brother, Caroline conducted independent astronomical observations. In the period between 1786 and 1797, she discovered eight comets and 14 nebulae.
After the death of her brother William in 1822, Caroline returned to Hanover, continuing her astronomical studies. In Hanover she completed a catalogue of nebulae and stellar clusters (more than 2500 objects).
Caroline Herschel was the first woman to be awarded a Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1828), and to be named an Honorary Member of the Royal Astronomical Society (1835). She was also named an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy in 1838. When Caroline was 96 years old, the King of Prussia presented her with a Gold Medal for Science (1846).
Throughout the twilight of her life, Caroline remained physically active and healthy, and regularly socialized with other scientists.
Caroline Herschel died peacefully in Hanover on 9 January 1848. She is buried next to her parents and with a lock of William’s hair. To the very end she remained a devout fan and disciple of her brother.