Friday, January 22, 2010

Nineteenth Century Heroines: Reach for the Stars

We’ve talked about how young ladies in the nineteenth century were encouraged to learn the housewifely arts. That was certainly true in the beginning for Caroline Herschel. She was born in Hanover (what is now Germany) in 1750, the daughter and sister of amateur astronomers. Her brother William moved to England in 1757 at age 19 to teach music. By 1766, he was an organist in Bath and often served as choir master. However, at night, he studied the stars. In 1781, he discovered the planet Uranus, which earned him the title of King's Astronomer, a knighthood, and a pension of 200 pounds per year. Such patronage from King George III was not surprising when you consider that the king was also a Hanoverian by birth and that Herschel had originally suggested naming the new planet after him. (Can you imagine: “What are the names of the three largest planets, children?” “Jupiter, Saturn, and George.”)

Caroline’s father tried to teach her astronomy too, but her mother would have none of it. Women, according to Mother Herschel, should only learn household tasks and be generally helpful. But Caroline got her chance to be helpful when, at 22, she moved to England to help her brother. I don’t know whether she hoped to be an astronomer right away, but her brother insisted that she learn to sing so she could help pay the bills. From 1773 until he was knighted, she sang with his choir up to five times a week in Bristol and Bath.

But somehow dear William was persuaded to train her in astronomy and math. It may be because Caroline begged; it may be because he desperately needed an assistant. In any event, within the next 2 years of his knighting, Caroline had not only learned about astronomy but was making discovering of her own. In 1783, she discovered three nebulae; her first comet followed in 1786. A year later, in recognition of her work, King George awarded her a salary of 50 pounds a year to officially serve as an assistant to her brother. She went on to discover another seven comets before 1797, then began cross-referencing and correcting England’s star catalog.

After William married at the ripe old age of 51, Caroline helped educate his son John and assisted in his astronomical work as well. She became a close friend of the Royal family and visited them in 1816, 1817, and 1818. When William died in 1822, she returned to Hanover, but continued her observations. While many reports today tout her as one of the first women to be awarded membership in the Royal Society, it was an honorary membership only and not until 1835 (when she was 85). However, at age 86 she was elected a full member of the Royal Irish Academy and at 96 was awarded the Prussian Gold Medal for Science. She died in 1848 at 98 years of age.

Now, that’s what I call a star!


Amy DeTrempe said...

"Jupiter, Saturn, and George" - LOL.
Great article. I read this blog a lot, but not sure I have ever commented. I really enjoy it.

ChaChaneen said...

ha ha I was going to say the same thing as Amy... "George as a name for a planet!" This was great, thanks so much for sharing it!

gale bates said...

Thank you for this wonderful story about another heroic woman behind the scenes. Living to 98 in those times is another heroic effort.
Yes, indeed, a STAR!

Regina Scott said...

Amy, ChaChaneen, and Gale--you're welcome! I suppose, in fairness, that dear William would probably have fancied the name up a bit: Georgius? George Rex? Still, the mind boggles!

But I do love Caroline! For all she looked at the stars, she seems to have been very down to earth and practical. My kind of gal!

QNPoohBear said...

Wow! What incredible accomplishments for a lady in any century! Thanks for bringing her to our attention. I'm sure she influenced Maria Mitchell, the 19th century New England astronomer.

Dara said...

Wow! And she lived to be 98, which is quite a feat even nowadays.

Joanna said...

Can you just imagine living to be that old and with all those accomplishments? At 98 I'd say you were a walking history.

My Grandmother is 82 or 83 lol something like that. And she has some amazing stories that she tells though nothing like that.