The Late-Blooming Cinderella Who Discovered a Comet

The Late-Blooming Cinderella Who Discovered a Comet

Exactly 230 years ago today, Caroline Herschel (1750-1848) became the first woman to discover a comet and receive the Royal Astronomical Society’s Gold Medal.

Yet she experienced such childhood cruelty, she called herself as Cinderella. She overcame abuse, neglect, and disfigurement to find her place among the stars at age 36

And although you might not recognize her name, DC Comics immortalized it in a famous graphic novel.

A Childhood of Cinders

Caroline was born in Hanover, Germany on March 16, 1750, the fifth child of Isaac Herschel and Anna Ilse Moritzen. Isaac encouraged all of his children, including his elder daughter, to learn French, music, and mathematics.

But Caroline contracted smallpox at age three, which disfigured one eye. At age 10, she came down with typhus and stopped growing. She remained just over four-feet tall for the rest of her life. Her mother decided that her daughter’s only value was as the family’s slave. Caroline later wrote:

But as it was my lot to be the Cinderella of the family…I could never find time for improving myself…except what little I knew of music…which my father took a pleasure in teaching me. N.B. When my mother was not at home. Amen.

The Seven Years’ War eventually forced most of Caroline’s brothers to leave Germany and caused Isaac’s death. Caroline was left alone with her mother and eldest brother, Jacob, both of whom beat her: “And poor I got many a whipping for being slow at the task of footman or waiter.”

Her favorite brother William, twelve years her senior, contrived to rescue his beloved “Lina” when she was 22.

William had moved to England several years earlier. He became a sought-after music teacher and organist. On a visit to Hanover, William miraculously convinced Anna Ilse to let Caroline return with him to Bath temporarily—supposedly because he needed a soprano for his oratorios.

William gave Caroline daily voice lessons. She quickly mastered English and became an admired soloist wherever he played.

The Late-Blooming Cinderella Who Discovered a Comet by Debra Eve at LaterBloomer.com
Sir William Herschel and Caroline (Credit: Wellcome Library, London)

 

William also trained her to assist with his favorite hobby—astronomy.

At first, she polished the mirrors used to collect light (as William is doing in the image above). Then she learned to make calculations from William’s observations, even though she knew no multiplication. (She worked from a cheat sheet.) Finally, William gave her a small telescope of her own.

For Caroline, there was no going back.

A Life Among the Stars

One night in 1781, William observed what he thought was a comet through his homemade telescope. He’d actually discovered the planet Uranus, which he named Georgium Sidus (the Georgian planet), after King George III.

SkyandTelescope.com notes that:

Locating this ice giant was the most revolutionary discovery since Galileo spotted the moons of Jupiter 170 years earlier. Herschel became an instant celebrity and won a stipend from the King of England that allowed him to become a full-time astronomer.

The catch—William must relocate to Windsor and entertain royal dinner guests with star-gazing shows. Caroline hated Windsor at first. She missed musical Bath and resented the backwater life of a country research assistant.

But William built her a special telescope and before long she noted 41 objects (mainly nebulae) from the famous catalog of astronomer Charles Messier.

In 1783, while observing Messier 31, the Andromeda Galaxy, she discovered the galaxy now designated NGC 253 (sometimes called the Silver Dollar Galaxy).

The Late-Blooming Cinderella Who Discovered a Comet by Debra Eve at LaterBloomer.com
Caroline Herschel’s Silver Dollar Galaxy

But for the next three years, she had little time for her own discoveries.

William needed her as his scribe, since moving from telescope to candlelight meant that “…the eye could never return soon enough to that full dilatation of the iris which is absolutely required for delicate observations.”

He yelled his findings to Caroline, who sat in a makeshift hut to block the light from her candle. She looked forward to his trips abroad.

The employment of writing down the observations, when my Brother uses the 20-feet reflector, does not often allow me time to look at the heavens; but as he is now on a visit to Germany, I have taken the opportunity of his absence, to sweep in the neighbourhood of the sun, in search of comets….

On August 1, 1786, Caroline saw a hazy object moving through the constellation Leo. Before going to sleep she dispatched a letter to Dr. Charles Blagden, Secretary of the Royal Society, announcing her find.

Five days later, Dr. Blagden and his deputation knocked on Caroline’s door.

They confirmed she’d discovered a comet, becoming history’s first woman to do so. At age 36, she began her life’s work.

When William returned from Germany on August 16, King George immediately summoned him to Windsor to show off the “first lady’s comet.”

Caroline herself seldom visited court, but George gave her £50 a year to assist William, making her the first professional woman astronomer. Caroline went on to discover seven more comets and become a celebrity.

Immortalized in Popular Culture

Wonder Woman #51 featuring Caroline Herschel at LaterBloomer.com
Wonder Woman #51 featuring Caroline Herschel

William died when Caroline was 72, but she continued to verify and confirm his findings.

When she was 78, the Royal Astronomical Society awarded her a Gold Medal for her catalog of 1500 nebulae. No woman would repeat that honor until Vera Rubin in 1996.

At age 86, she and late bloomer Mary Somerville became the first two female members of the Society. And at age 96, Caroline received the Gold Medal for Science from the King of Prussia.

Before she died two years later, at age 98, she penned her own epitaph. It reads:

The eyes of her who is glorified here below turned to the starry heavens.

All eight comets Caroline discovered bear her name, as does the Moon’s crater C. Herschel.

Although 36 may seem young to be classified as a “late” bloomer, she overcame so much to find that sanctuary under the stars.

In 1952, DC Comics  immortalized Caroline in Wonder Woman #51, another singular tribute to the tiny, determined woman whose vast passion changed how we view the cosmos.

22 Responses

  1. Ellen M. Gregg
    | Reply

    What a wonderful outcome for her, Debra. I’m glad the latter portion of her life was better, because the former made my blood boil on her behalf. Cinderella, indeed. I can only hope her soul was lightened by William’s support, and the thrill of discovering passions (singing as well as star-gazing) within herself that enriched others’ lives.

    As for my own star-gazing… I don’t do enough of it, and it’s a simple thing to accomplish given where I live. I’ll correct that.

    • Debra Eve
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      She is one of my favorites, Ellen. I can’t even imagine what she went through those first 22 years. She’s very circumspect about it in her memoirs, preferring to concentrate on her brother, his work, and her own “small” contribution to it. I love to star gaze. My husband bought me a telescope I’ve yet to set up, but after reading this, I must remedy that!

  2. Anne R. Allen
    | Reply

    What a powerful, inspiring story. And why don’t we hear more about her?! She deserves a movie, at least. Starring Linda Hunt, maybe?

    • Debra Eve
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      What a magnificent idea, Anne! Linda Hunt would be perfect as Caroline Herschel. I’ve loved Linda since I first saw her in The Year of Living Dangerously. If I had any talent for that sort of thing, I’d write it myself.

  3. florence fois
    | Reply

    Debra, Some might think that part of Caroline’s story is sad … yet in a wonderful way … it is joyous. I told a friend once that we live as long as we need to accomplish what it was we were sent to do. It might be my rationale for why certain among us die so young, or it might be why so many “late bloomers” are here so long. They were meant to remain with us to make their mark. And she did … both here and in the heavens where she will always be immortalized 🙂 Thanks so much.

    • Debra Eve
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      You’re welcome! I’ve wondered about that, too, Florence. So many of the people I write about have long, long lives — and in eras where that wasn’t the norm. It give me so much hope.

  4. K.B. Owen
    | Reply

    Love this, Debra! So glad she had a good brother and a long life to actualize her dreams, no matter how bad a start she had. Very inspirational. 😀

    ~Kathy

    • Debra Eve
      |

      That’s so true, Kathy. She’s lucky she had that one person who believed in her. It can make all the difference in a life.

  5. Jennette Marie Powell
    | Reply

    What a fantastic story, Debra! Thanks for sharing it with us. I was not familiar with. Ms. Herschel. I always learn something here!

    • Debra Eve
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      Thanks, Jennette. I don’t remember when she hit my radar, but I’ve been wanting to write about her for ages! I even left out about 50 years of her life. Amazing to think about.

  6. David Stevens
    | Reply

    Amazing story Debra, thankyou.
    I’m also amazed at her longevity (98 years) especially in those times and the set backs she had in her earlier years.
    Be good to yourself
    David
    Life Coach. Listener. Life Lover.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thanks, David. It is amazing how long she lived, especially considering her childhood diseases and battles. I can only attribute it to her sense of purpose!

  7. Karen McFarland
    | Reply

    I am so glad Debra that Caroline Herschel’s later part of her life turned out so well and was not overshadowed by the horrors of her childhood. The mother and brother were bullies. What is wrong with people? And yet, she went on to have a career in a time when most woman did not. And in the sciences no less. Can you imagine? Yes, her brother William saved her life. You must set up you telescope Debra! Let me know when you do and how you like it. 🙂

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thanks, Karen. She is a true testament to the power of faith — both having someone to believe in you, and believing in yourself. Yup, that telescope has to come out this weekend!

  8. Chris Edgar
    | Reply

    That’s a great shtick for the Wonder Woman comics to honor famous female scientists — does Wonder Woman travel back in time to meet her and prevent an evil mastermind from harnessing the energy of red dwarf stars to power his Destructo-Ray? But anyway, great story as usual — sounds like she might have inspired your own path.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      I couldn’t quite decipher what’s going on, Chris — there’s only a few panels on the Web. As far as I can tell, some Wonder Women issues ran a feature called “Wonder Women of History.” I think that feature was separate from the ongoing storylines. I’m going to have do some more research on this, because if that’s the case, it would be fantastic to uncover them again!

  9. libby esther berman
    | Reply

    I live in Public Housing downtown, and so ,can’t always see the stars. But,at almost 60,I still respond strongly to the moon. There is an author called Elle Luna,which sounds very like a Goddess name,I think.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      I live in Los Angeles, where there’s too much light pollution to see the stars. One a clear night I can spot maybe 7-8. But like you, I always look for the moon. I’ll have to look up that author! Thanks for stopping by, Libby.

  10. Patricia
    | Reply

    What a super cool story with a happy ending – just like Cinderella!

    You always write such fascinating stuff, Debra. Keep it up.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      Thanks so much, Patricia. It’s such a pleasure researching and immersing myself in these lives! Keeps me going, as do people like you.

  11. Darlene Foster
    | Reply

    Not only is she a late bloomer, but she overcame adversity as well. She was a remarkable woman. Great things come in small packages.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      Thank you, Darlene. A most remarkable woman. And what a long and amazing life! So glad you enjoyed the piece.

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