Women's History Month - Caroline Herschel

For Women's History Month we're looking at the vital role women played in the history of science and the very existence of our Observatory. On International Women's Day, we look at Britain's first paid female astronomer. 

Last time we discussed 17th Century Louise De Keroualle and the role she played in the building of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, read that here. Today we move forward to the 18th Century and see why Caroline Herschel became the first ever woman to become a paid astronomer.

Caroline Herschel (1750 - 1848)

Caroline Herschel

Caroline spent her youth in Hanover performing chores for her demanding mother, but crossed the Channel in 1772 and sang as a premier soloist in her brother William's concerts in Bath only six years later. Their musical life changed dramatically as William's obsession with his new hobby - astronomy - took over. After William's groundbreaking discovery of Uranus, he gave up music and moved near Windsor to act as astronomer to the Royal Family under the patronage of King George III - and, Caroline wrote, she 'found [she] was to be trained for an assistant Astronomer'.

Over time, Caroline discovered comets - eight in total. Understanding the importance of speedy communication, when she spotted her final comet in 1797, she rode nearly 30 miles to our observatory in Greenwich to tell the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne. She also completed the laborious, mundane, but essential task of checking, calculating, correcting, and updating the catalogue of nearly 3,000 stars observed by John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal.  

Nevil Maskelyne
Nevil Maskelyne (1732 -1811)


In 1787 King George III granted Caroline a £50 salary as William's assistant, making her the first female in Britain to earn an income for the pursuit of science as well as the first women ever to earn a living from astronomy. She received many accolades for her discoveries, including a Gold Medal and Honorary Membership of the Royal Astronomical Society, Honorary Membership of the Royal Irish Academy, and the Gold Medal of Science from the King of Prussia.

The text for this post was drawn from the booklet 'Women, Astronomy & Greenwich' written for the Royal Observatory  Greenwich by author Kelley Swain.