The author/illustrator reports that, in 1786, Caroline Herschel became the first woman to discover a comet. She was also the first woman ever to be paid for scientific research. This book tells the story of how Caroline overcame the obstacles of her childhood to accomplish so much as an adult. There is also text in italics throughout the story, providing excerpts from Caroline Herschel’s correspondence and later memoir.
Caroline was born in 1750 in Hanover, now in Germany but then ruled by Britain. As a child Caroline contracted typhus which left her with vision loss in one eye and stunted growth. Then she got smallpox, which scarred her face. Her mother thought no one would ever marry her, so she trained her to be a house servant. Since her brother William needed a housekeeper when he moved to England, he took Caroline with him.
William was fascinated by the stars, so at night,“by way of relaxation, we talked of astronomy…” He decided to build a telescope to look at the stars, and as with everything else, Caroline helped him. The author writes:
“Their first telescope was five feet long, with a six-inch mirror that magnified 6,000 times! William would look through the telescope and call out his observations, and Caroline wrote them down.”
It was William who discovered the new planet Uranus, a discovery which made him famous.
King George III appointed William to be Court Astronomer, and William asked Caroline to accompany him and help. Once again, she complied. William went on to build first a twenty-foot, then a forty-foot telescope. As before, he would make observations and call them down to Caroline, although with the larger telescope, instead of shouting down at Caroline, William would call out to her through a speaking tube.
William also made Caroline her own small telescope and taught her math so she could better calculate the positions of stars. She wrote:
“I found I was to be trained for an assistant-astronomer . . . I was ‘to sweep for comets.’”
In 1783, Caroline discovered fourteen new nebulae and star clusters and two new galaxies. As the author observes: “All this time, Caroline also did needlework and sewing, kept William’s accounts and cleaned all the equipment.”
In 1786, when William was off on a trip to Europe, Caroline discovered a comet. It was called “The Lady’s Comet,” and made Caroline the second famous Herschel. The King officially hired Caroline as well, making her the first woman ever to receive wages for doing science. Thereafter she discovered even more comets along with other objects in the sky. McCully writes:
“Her celebrity spread even farther and caused a worldwide enthusiasm for comets. Caroline Herschel has been known ever since as the Hunter of Comets.”
She was the first woman to be awarded a Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1828), and to be named an Honorary Member of the Royal Astronomical Society (1835, along with Mary Somerville). She was also named an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy (1838). The King of Prussia presented her with a Gold Medal for Science on the occasion of her 96th birthday (1846).
Her tombstone inscription reads, “The eyes of her who is glorified here below turned to the starry heavens.” Along with her brother, she discovered over 2400 astronomical objects over twenty years.
At the end of the book, there is an Author’s Note, bibliography, glossary, and timeline.
McCully’s watercolor-and-ink illustrations reflect the author’s research into period images, bringing the historical era of Caroline’s time to life.
Evaluation: One suspects Caroline Herschel’s entire life provided one obstruction after another. And yet, she persisted!
Published by Holiday House, 2017