Caroline Herschel

Victorian Marine Biologist Margaret Gatty’s Stunning Drawings of Seaweed

The tenderness of feathers meets the grandeur of trees in the otherworldly life-forms of the seas, which offered an unexpected entry point for women in science.

Victorian Marine Biologist Margaret Gatty’s Stunning Drawings of Seaweed

Although the Victorian botanist and photographer Anna Atkins became the first person to publish a book illustrated with photographic images and the first woman to take a photograph, she was one of very few women who managed to subvert and transcend the era’s limiting gender roles in intellectual life and creative work. It was a time when women were formally excluded from science — the great scientific institutions of the era didn’t admit female members until pioneering German astronomer Caroline Herschel and Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville became the first women admitted into the prestigious Royal Astronomical Society in 1835. But astronomy has always led the way, in science and in society. Natural history lagged far behind. London’s Linnean Society — the ivory tower of botany — wouldn’t even allow women to attend its meetings, much less admit them as members, which didn’t happen until 1905. It was the same Linnean Society that barred beloved children’s book author Beatrix Potter from presenting a paper containing her little-known yet revolutionary contributions to mycology, which remained dormant for decades.

Margaret Gatty, 1860 (Portrait Gallery, London)

But women found one particularly opportune loophole in entering science: algae-hunting. It was another children’s book author, Margaret Gatty (June 3, 1809–October 4, 1873), who took this popular hobby — one with such famous practitioners as George Eliot and Queen Victoria herself — and brought to it equal parts scientific rigor and artistic acumen.

Through her conversations and correspondence which her second cousin, the zoologist, meteorologist, and philanthropist Charles Henry Gatty, she became fascinated with marine biology and entered into correspondence with some of the era’s most prominent marine biologists. Gatty eventually educated herself in the science of the seas and taught herself to draw her specimens in exquisite detail.

In 1848, five years after Anna Atkins’s pioneering cyanotypes of sea algae, Gatty published British Sea-Weeds (public library | public domain) — a stunningly illustrated field guide to local algae, fourteen years in the making, detailing 200 specimens in two volumes.

Under Gatty’s brush, these otherworldly life-forms of the sea come to life with the tenderness of feathers and the grandeur of trees. Algae, like moss, become a reminder that beauty beckons from even the most overlooked corners of…

The Universe in Verse: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads “Planetarium,” Adrienne Rich’s Tribute to Women in Astronomy

The Universe in Verse: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads “Planetarium,” Adrienne Rich’s Tribute to Women in Astronomy

Caroline Herschel, the first professional woman astronomer, was a remarkable woman who lived a long and pathbreaking life. Her parents deemed her too ugly to marry and envisioned for her a life as a servant — she became the Cinderella of the household, tending to the domestic needs of her parents and her eleven siblings. But Herschel, though incredibly humble, had a tenacity of spirit that kept her quiet passion for the life of the mind burning. She went on to pave the way for women in science, becoming the first woman admitted into the Royal Astronomical Society — the era’s most prestigious scientific institution — alongside the Scottish mathematician Mary Sommerville (for whom the word “scientist” was coined).

Exactly 120 years after Herschel’s death, the great poet and feminist Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012) — a woman who espoused the political power of poetry and believed that “poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility” — commemorated Herschel’s far-reaching legacy of unlocking a universe of possibility for women in a beautiful 1968 poem titled “Planetarium,” found in Rich’s indispensable Collected Poems: 1950–2012 (public library).

At The Universe in Verse — my celebration of science through poetry, which also gave us Neil Gaiman’s new feminist poem about the dawn of science — astrophysicist and author Janna Levin brought Rich’s masterpiece to life in an enchanting reading:

PLANETARIUM

Thinking of Caroline Herschel (1750–1848)
astronomer, sister of William; and others.

A woman in the shape of a monster
a monster in the shape of a woman
the skies are full of them

a woman ‘in the snow
among the Clocks and instruments
or measuring the ground with poles’

in her 98 years to discover
8 comets

she whom…

The Measure of All Things: How Two French Astronomers Nearly Lost Their Lives Revolutionizing the World with the Invention of the Meter

“The fundamental fallacy of utopianism is to assume that everyone wants to live in the same utopia.”

The Measure of All Things: How Two French Astronomers Nearly Lost Their Lives Revolutionizing the World with the Invention of the Meter

In her memoir, the trailblazing astronomer Caroline Herschel recounted frequently having to “measure the ground with poles” when she first began making astronomical observations in the 1780s. It seems odd that something as grand and lofty as studying the heavens would necessitate something this humble and earthbound, but this seemingly mundane task is important for two reasons — it reminds us that astronomers were the original measurers of everything we know, but it also raises the question of what the ground was measured in. For it wasn’t until a generation later that the measures of the world were standardized, thanks to the French astronomers Pierre Méchain and Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre, who set out to unite humanity by creating a single measure: the meter, arguably the most impactful mathematical concept since the invention of zero, central to everything from the speed of light and our basic understanding of the universe to the daily practicalities of shoe sizes, doorframe dimensions, and driving speed limits. Over and over during their seven-year quest for peace through mathematical perfection, they stumbled and fell and got back up, nearly losing their heads to the guillotine on multiple occasions as they toiled to create an equalizing measurement that would “encompass nothing that was arbitrary, nor to the particular advantage of any people on the planet.”

Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre and Pierre Méchain

Historian Ken Alder tells the story of Delambre and Méchain’s ambitious, improbable, and heroic feat in The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World (public library). He casts the stakes:

In June 1792 — in the dying days of the French monarchy, as the world began to revolve around a new promise of Revolutionary equality — two astronomers set out in opposite directions on an extraordinary quest. The erudite and cosmopolitan Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre made his way north from Paris, while the cautious and scrupulous Pierre-François-André Méchain made his way south. Each man left the capital in a customized carriage stocked with the most advanced scientific instruments of the day and accompanied by a skilled assistant. Their mission was to measure the world, or at least that piece of the meridian arc which ran from Dunkerque through Paris to Barcelona. Their hope was that all the world’s peoples would henceforth use the globe as their common standard of measure. Their task was to establish this new measure — “the meter” — as one ten-millionth…

Hooked on the Heavens: How Caroline Herschel, the First Professional Woman Astronomer, Nearly Died by Meathook in the Name of Science

Hooked on the Heavens: How Caroline Herschel, the First Professional Woman Astronomer, Nearly Died by Meathook in the Name of Science

“If I were king,” the trailblazing mathematician Émilie du Châtelet wrote in the 1730s, “I would reform an abuse that cuts out, so to speak, half of humanity. I would allow women to share in all the rights of humanity, and most of all those of the mind.” It took a century for her fantasy to take on the first glimmer of reality.

In 1835, a quarter century before Maria Mitchell earned her place as America’s first woman astronomer and led the way for women in science, Caroline Herschel (March 16, 1750–January 9, 1848) became the world’s first professional woman astronomer. Together with the Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville (for whom the word “scientist” had been coined a year earlier), 85-year-old Herschel became the first woman elected Honorary Member of the Royal Astronomical Society for the eight comets she had discovered in her prolific life as a “sweeper” of the stars.

Caroline Herschel

Herschel’s monumental legacy and her ninety-eight years of earthly perseverance — a lifespan that exceeded the era’s average life expectancy by decades and stretched through the French Revolution, the Civil War, the rise and fall of Napoleon, and the invention of the railroad and the telegraph — are all the more impressive against the backdrop of the inordinate hardships she had to overcome from a young age.

Of her ten siblings, four died in early childhood. At the age of eleven, Caroline contracted typhus fever, which nearly killed her. She would later recount the aftermath of the attack in Memoir and Correspondence of Caroline Herschel (public library):

For several months after I was obliged to mount the stairs on my hands and feet like an infant; but here I will remark that from that time to this present day [at age 71] I do not remember ever to have spent a whole day in bed.

The illness damaged her left eye and stunted her growth. For the remainder of her life, this tiny woman of four feet and three inches swept the skies with her twenty-foot Newtonian telescope and one good eye.

But many more obstacles stood between her and astronomy, perhaps most crucially her mother — an illiterate woman who was determined to make Caroline useful in domestic duties and was adamant that the girl shouldn’t be distracted with education. It was the father, an admirer of astronomy, who secretly taught her music and science when his wife was “either in good humour or out of the way,” and who one frosty night took young Caroline out to make her “acquainted with several of the most beautiful constellations [and] a comet which was then visible.”

He eventually arranged for her to be tutored by a young woman whose parents lived in the same Hanover house as the Herschels. To receive her lessons, Caroline would rise before dawn, meet her tutor at daybreak, and study until 7 in the morning, at which point she would have to resume her duties as the household’s Cinderella. But this faint promise of scholarship barely lasted a few months — tuberculosis claimed her young tutor’s life.

Hand-embroidered runner for Caroline Herschel by Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party.
Hand-embroidered runner for Caroline Herschel from artist Judy Chicago’s 1979 project The Dinner Party, a celebration of women’s legacy in creative culture

The summer after Caroline’s sixteenth birthday, her father had a stroke, which paralyzed the entire left side of his body. He died several months later, leaving the young woman in stupefied grief. To alleviate her mourning, her brothers William and Alexander suggested that she join them in Bath, England, where William, to whom she was deeply and abidingly attached, had taken a position as an organist at a local church. William beseeched and beseeched, but the mother was unyielding. In a bout of desperation, Caroline knitted two years’ worth…