Plate 15 - Caroline Herschel’s tomb in Hanover, photograph courtesy of Owen Gingerich.
Caroline Herschel, the first salaried female astronomer in history, was buried in 1848 in a graveyard in Hanover, Germany, in the same grave as her parents. In the inscription, which she had composed herself, she records the presence below of the body of her father Isaac, but of her mother Anna she makes no mention. Why could that be?
Isaac had been a humble bandsman in the Hanoverian Guards, an intelligent man who married the illiterate Anna because they conceived a child out of wedlock. Isaac wished to make Caroline a musician like her brothers, but Anna would not allow this – she liked having unpaid help around the house, and did all she could to prevent Caroline acquiring skills that would have allowed her to leave home and find a job elsewhere. In the end, Caroline was rescued by her organist brother William who was settled in England and thought Caroline might sing in his Handel concerts there.
Soon after Caroline’s arrival in Bath, William became a passionate amateur astronomer, and discovered the planet we know as Uranus. King George III made him court astronomer at Windsor Castle, and with Caroline’s help as the recorder of his shouted observations, he became the greatest observer of his day, and his theories set astronomy on the path to the modern cosmos. When he died in 1822, Caroline returned to Hanover, and in due course bought her parents’ grave and built a vault over it for her own body. Her inscription pays tribute to Isaac, but Anna she writes out of history.
About the author: Michael Hoskin taught history of astronomy at Cambridge University throughout his career, and he has edited Journal for the History of Astronomy for 42 years. Discoverers of the Universe is his fifth book on the Herschels.