Caroline Herschel was the first female astronomer, but she still lacks name recognition two centuries later
Caroline Herschel, the first professional female astronomer, made contributions to astronomy that are still important to the field today. But even many astronomers may not recognize her name.
Most scientists care about the newest techniques, data and theories in their field, but they often know very little about the history of their discipline. Astronomers, like me, are no exception.
It wasn’t until I taught an intro to astronomy class that I learned about Caroline. Now, thanks to a new display of her papers at the Herschel Museum in Bath, England, others will get to learn about her too. Her story reflects not only the priorities of astronomy but also how credit is assigned in the field.
Her path to astronomy
Caroline Herschel, born in 1750, did not have an easy childhood. After a bout with typhus left her scarred at a young age, her family assumed that she would never marry and treated her as an unpaid servant. She was forced to complete household chores, despite showing a keen interest in learning from a young age. She eventually escaped her family to follow her older brother William Herschel, whom she adored, to Bath.
Caroline was a somewhat unwilling astronomer at first. She didn’t become interested in astronomy until William was already thoroughly engrossed in the subject. Although she spoke somewhat disparagingly about how she followed her brother to different interests, including music and astronomy, Caroline eventually acknowledged her real interest in studying astronomical bodies.