"25 July 1841--I am now not able even to look over, much less correct, what I have scribbled, but it must go as it is. Perhaps my dear niece may look into them at some leisure moment, and she will see what a solitary and useless life I have led these seventeen years, allowing to not finding Hanover, nor anyone in it, like what I left, when the best of brothers took me with him to England in August, 1772!"
Carolyn Herschel, the first famous woman astronomer since Hypatia, wrote these words in her still legible handwriting at the age of 91--she would live nearly seven years more. In these last years of her long life she lived in Hanover, the town of her birth, and she was an international celebrity. Clearly the most famous woman scientist of her time, she received esteemed visitors from all over Europe, correspondence from the likes of Gauss and Von Humboldt, and invitations from royalty. And yet, the first woman to be given an honorary membership to the Royal Astronomical Society became an astronomer not entirely by her own choice.
Carolyn Lucretia Herschel was born on the 16th of March, 1750, the fifth of six children (four others died in infancy). The family name would later change the science of astronomy forever with William Herschel's giant telescopes and many discoveries. But when Carolyn was born the Herschels were not scientists at all--they were musicians.
Her brothers were trained from early childhood by their father, who was an oboist for the Hanoverian Guard. As an 18th-century intellectual, the father did everything in his limited means to insure all of the children were educated. This was fine for the boys, but the less-enlightened mother would allow none of this for the youngest daughter. "It was my task to be the Cinderella of the family," Carolyn wrote many years later. Sometimes her father would give her violin lessons on the sly, "...when my mother was either in a good humour or out of the way."
While she was still a child, the ravages of war forced the emigration of most of her brothers, and finally, the death of her beloved father. Carolyn was left alone with her mother and eldest brother Jacob. It was not a happy life. "And poor I got many a whipping for being slow at the task of footman or waiter."
Much on Carolyn's mind was how she would support herself in the future. Her mother had not let her learn French, and so she feared she would not be able to receive employment as a governess (one of the few jobs available to an independent woman in her time). To improve her chances she made herself an expert at needlework, receiving secret lessons from a bedridden neighbor.
Meanwhile, her favorite brother William, who had moved to Bath, England, quickly established himself as a composer and conductor. But in his success he had not forgotten his unhappy sister left behind in Germany, and he proposed to have Carolyn come to England to train as a soprano. The mother and eldest brother had grown used to Carolyn's housework, and they would not, at first, let her go. ". . . and I was left in the harrassing uncertainty whether I was to go or not!" In order to cover both possibilities she knitted two years worth of stockings, while at every opportunity "when all were from home" she practiced voice "with a gag between my teeth."
So the first woman in history to discover a comet began her career as a singer. And she achieved no little success; she performed regularly with her brother's orchestra and even began to receive invitations to perform with other orchestras in other cities.
Fate, however, would dictate otherwise. At the time that Carolyn joined her brother in Bath, William Herschel was devoting himself less and less to his job--music--and more and more to his passion--astronomy. Unsatisfied with the views provided by telescopes of the day, he began making his own mirrors and telescope mounts. Frustrated by the paltry descriptions of the many faint, mysterious, nebulous objects he could see through his telescopes, William Herschel began a survey of the entire night-time sky.
Assisting William in all of these endeavors was his sister Carolyn. She helped grind the mirrors for the telescopes; she took the notes while her brother observed, reduced those observations to a usable form, and prepared the copy of William's scientific papers for publication. For the first 20 years of her life in Bath, she was also her brother's housekeeper, as well as their bookkeeper and accountant.
As her brother's activites became centered around astronomy, the aspiring young singer had little time for music. And when in 1781 William discovered the planet Uranus, launching him to sudden fame, he abandoned his musical career altogether. Carolyn was not altogether pleased by the turn of events:
". . . I had not had time to consider the consequence of giving up the prospect of making myself independent by becoming a useful member of the musical profession. . . .I was of course left solely to amuse myself with my own thoughts, which were anything but cheerful. I found I was to be trained for an assistant astronomer, and by way of encour-agement a telescope adapted for 'sweeping' was given me."
History shows that Carolyn Herschel soon came to love astronomy, and she pursued it, as she pursued everything, with legendary energy and persistance. But the painful beginning of her astronomical carrer was, unfortunately, typical of the many changes put upon her throughout her long life. The discoverer of the beautiful spiral galaxy NGC 253 died lonely and unhappy. Her last recorded words were, "Tell them that I am good for nothing."