Science & Environment

Who was Caroline Herschel?

Caroline Herschel Image copyright SHEILA TERRY/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

The pioneering astronomer Caroline Herschel has become the subject of a Google Doodle commemorating her 266th birthday on 15 March.

But who was she and what contribution did she make in the history of science?

Who was Caroline Herschel?

The astronomer was born in Hanover, Germany, in 1750 - the eighth of 10 children born to the oboist Isaac Herschel and Anna Ilse Moritzen. When she was aged 10, she caught typhus, which stunted her growth; her adult height was reported as four ft three ins.

In 1772, she left Hanover to live with her brother William in Bath, England. She initially assisted his endeavours as a musician, but as his interests increasingly turned to astronomy, so did hers.

However, she would become a significant astronomer in her own right.

Watching the heavens: The female pioneers of science

What is she remembered for?

Ms Herschel discovered eight comets, rediscovered another and assembled a catalogue of 560 previously unrecorded stars.

She was also the first woman to be paid for her contribution to science. Caroline Herschel was awarded an annual salary of £50 by King George III in 1796 for her role as assistant to her brother, who by then had become Sir William Herschel.

After William married, she moved out of his property. But this also seems to have coincided with her becoming known as a scientist in her own right.

Image copyright Google

Does she receive enough recognition?

Ms Herschel is not a household name, but she was the first woman to be awarded the Gold Medal of the UK's Royal Astronomical Society in 1838.

It took until 1996 for another woman to win this award, when the American Vera Rubin was honoured for her work on galaxy rotation rates, which led to the theory of dark matter.

Her name has been bestowed on the comet 35P/Herschel-Rigollet, the asteroid 281 Lucretia (after her middle name), and the lunar crater C. Herschel.

And the Google Doodle can't help but boost her profile.