Mary Somerville

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…

15 Female Mathematicians Whose Accomplishments Add Up

In many periods of history, women have been discouraged from applying their minds to mathematics—but a few persevered. The world-altering contributions of these 15 notable female mathematicians include making hospitals safer, laying the groundwork for the computer, and advancing space flight.

Hypatia (c.355–415) was the first woman known to have taught mathematics. Her father Theon was a famous mathematician in Alexandria who wrote commentaries on Euclid’s Elements and works by Ptolemy. Theon taught his daughter math and astronomy, then sent her to Athens to study the teachings of Plato and Aristotle. Father and daughter collaborated on several commentaries, but Hypatia also wrote commentaries of her own and lectured on math, astronomy, and philosophy. Sadly, she died at the hands of a mob of Christian zealots.

Maurice Quentin de La Tour via Wikipedia // Public Domain

Emilie Du Chatelet (1706–1749) was born in Paris in a home that entertained several scientists and mathematicians. Although her mother thought her interest in math was unladylike, her father was supportive. Chatalet initially employed her math skills to gamble, which financed the purchase of math books and lab equipment.

In 1725 she married an army officer, the Marquis Florent-Claude du Chatalet, and the couple eventually had three children. Her husband traveled frequently, an arrangement that provided ample time for her to study mathematics and write scientific articles (it also apparently gave her time to have an affair with Voltaire). From 1745 until her death, Chatalet worked on a translation of Isaac Newton’s Principia. She added her own commentaries, including valuable clarification of the principles in the original work.

Sophie Germain (1776–1831) was only 13 when she developed an interest in mathematics, one that could be blamed on the French Revolution. Since the fighting raged around her home, Germain could not explore the streets of Paris—instead she explored her father’s library, teaching herself Latin and Greek and reading respected mathematical works. Germain’s family also tried to discourage her academic leanings. Not wanting her to study at night, they denied her a fire in her room, but she lit candles and read anyway, bundled in blankets.

Since women’s educational opportunities were limited, Germain studied secretly at the Ecole Polytechnique, using the name of a previously enrolled male student. That worked until the teachers noticed the dramatic improvement in the student’s math skills.

Although Germain never worked as a mathematician, she studied independently and wrote about the subject. She is best known for her work on Fermat’s Last Theorem, considered at the time to be one of the most challenging mathematical puzzles. A 17th century mathematician named Pierre de Fermat claimed he could prove that the equation x^n + y^n = z^n had no integer solution when n was greater than 2, but his proof was never written down. Germain proposed a new way of looking at the problem.

Germain also became the first woman to win a prize from the Paris Academy of Sciences, for writing about elasticity theory. Today that prize is known as the Sophie Germain Prize.

4. MARY SOMERVILLE

Thomas Phillips via Wikipedia // Public Domain

Mary Somerville (1780–1872) was born in Scotland, and was not particularly interested in academics as a child—she only attended school for a year. However, when she encountered an algebra symbol in a puzzle at age 16, she became fascinated with math and began studying it on her own. Her parents tried to discourage her, worried that her intellectual preoccupations might drive her insane. (At the time, a popular theory held that difficult study could damage a woman’s mental health.) But Somerville continued to study, teaching herself Latin so she could read earlier versions of works by Euclid.

She also corresponded with William Wallace, a professor of mathematics at Edinburgh University, and solved mathematical problems posed in contests, winning a silver prize in 1811.

Somerville’s first husband did not encourage her interests, but when he died, she remarried. Her second husband, Dr. William Somerville, an inspector of the Army Medical Board, was proud of her work in mathematics and astronomy. For her work translating a book titled Celestial Mechanics and adding commentary, she was named an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Physicist Sir David Brewster called her “certainly the most extraordinary woman in Europe—a mathematician of the very first rank with all the gentleness of a woman.” When John Stuart Mill petitioned the British government for women’s votes, he filed his petition with Somerville’s signature first. She was proof that women were men’s intellectual equals.

Alfred Edward Chalonvia Wikipedia // Public Domain

The next time you download some electronica, you may want to remember Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace (1815–1852). Lovelace was born during the brief marriage of poet George, Lord Byron and Anne Milbanke, Lady Wentworth. Her mother did not want her to be a poet like her father and encouraged her interest in mathematics and music. As a teenager, Ada began to correspond with Charles Babbage, a professor at Cambridge. At the time, Babbage was working on his ideas for a calculating machine called the Analytical Engine, now considered a precursor to the computer. Babbage was solely focused on the calculating aspects, but Lovelace supplied notes that helped envision other possibilities, including the idea of computer-generated music.

Lovelace also translated an article about the Analytic Engine by French mathematician Louis Menebrea. Her notes include an algorithm showing how to calculate a sequence of numbers, which forms the basis for the design of the modern computer. It was the first algorithm created expressly for a machine to perform.

Lovelace was a countess after her marriage, but she preferred to describe herself as an analyst and a metaphysician. Babbage called her “the enchantress of numbers”—but she might also be called the world’s first computer programmer.

Florence Nightingale (1820–1910) is best known as a nurse and social reformer, but a lesser-known contribution of hers continues to save lives. In her efforts to improve the survival rates of hospital patients, Nightingale became a statistician.

When the “lady with the lamp” returned from service during the Crimean War, she expressed sadness about how many soldiers had become sick and died while lying in the hospital. “Oh my poor men, who endured so patiently,” she wrote to a friend. “I feel I have been a bad mother to you to come home and leave you lying in your Crimean graves.”

As part of her plan to reform hospital care, Nightingale began gathering statistics. The figures she gathered indicated that a lack of sanitation…