STEM Women Hall of Fame: The Stunted Stargazer

Cristen Conger

STEM Women Hall of Fame Facts: Caroline Herschel

  • Born: March 16, 1750
  • STEM Legacy: Self-taught astronomer and helped her brother, famed astronomer William Herschel, discover Uranus.
  • Historical context: Stricken with typhus as a child, Caroline Herschel's growth was stunted, and her lack of physical beauty led her family to assume that she wouldn't amount to anything since she couldn't attract a suitor. Although she never married, Herschel went on to achieve scientific prominence for her astronomy studies and findings.

All Caroline Herschel's mother wished for her daughter was to become her own personal maid. Fortunately, the four-foot-three-inch girl was taken under her father's wing, and he secretly helped educate her. In adulthood, she moved to Bath, England, to live with her brother William who was also an amateur astronomer with a keen interest in telescopes. Over time, as Caroline helped clean and care for her brother's telescope, her interest in the stars perked, and she eventually became his scientific apprentice, learning about astronomy, math and how to hunt for comets. As her skills developed, Caroline helped William keep detailed records of their heavenly observations and perform calculations about the positions of various celestial bodies, all of which led to his 1781 discovery of Uranus -- the first planet ever discovered, in fact.

A nebula discovered by Caroline Herschel.
Courtesy: Astrophotographia

Soon after, Caroline's work also paid off when she became the first woman to discover a comet, the first of eight she would go on to locate between 1786 and 1797, in addition to three nebulae. After William died, Caroline carefully cataloged all of their research over the years, and in response the Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Irish Academy gave her honorary memberships. Other awards she also received included a Gold Medal of Science from the King of Prussia and a medal from the King of Denmark. Not bad for a tiny young woman who wasn't expected to do anything more than serve as her mother's maid.