Women from History: Caroline Herschel

(A slightly belated second contribution to Women’s History Month, but hey – we don’t need to be bound by a particular month, do we?)

My favourite series of books is the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian – the ‘Aubreyad’ as aficionados like to call it. It charts the career of Captain Jack Aubrey in the Royal Navy in the early years of the 19th century. Aubrey is of course fictional, but the very real woman I want to talk about today makes a couple of cameo appearances in the series. Well, she never actually appears as a character, but she is referred to several times. So for starters, I will leave it to Captain Aubrey to introduce her:

‘Tell me, who is the Miss Herschel of whom you spoke with such warm approbation?’ [asks Aubrey’s friend Stephen Maturin]

‘Ah, now, that is another case altogether […]. There is a woman you can talk to as one rational being to another. Ask her the measure of an arc whose cosine is nought, and instantly she replies pi upon two: it is all there, in her head. She is sister to the great Mr Herschel.’

‘The astronomer?’

‘Just so. He honoured me with some most judicious remarks on refraction when I addressed the Royal Society, and that is how I came to know her. She had already read my paper on Jovian moons, was more than civil about it, and suggested a quicker way of working my heliocentric longitudes. I go to see her every time she comes down to Newman’s observatory, which is pretty often, and we sit there either sweeping for comets all night or talking about instruments. She and her brother must have made some hundreds in their time. She understands telescopes from clew to earring, and it was she who showed me how to figure a speculum, and where to get my superfine Pomeranian sludge. And it is not mere theory: I have seen her walking round and round a post in Newman’s stable-yard for a good three hours without a break, putting the last touches to a six-inch mirror – it will never do to take your hand from the surface at that stage, you know – taking snuff from a saucer every hundred paces. An admirable woman; you would love her, Stephen. And she sings, too – hits the note plumb in the middle, as pure as the Carlotta.’

(from The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian)

So: who was Miss Herschel?


Caroline Herschel shortly before her death at 97 years of age 

Caroline Herschel was born in Hanover in 1750 (on 16th March – happy late birthday Caroline!). She had several brothers and sisters, one of whom, Wilhelm (or William) moved to Britain in 1757, where Caroline joined him in 1772. Although both Caroline and William became famous as astronomers, they both had early careers in music. William had been an oboist in the Hanover Military Band, but he also played other instruments. For a while he was the first violin in Charles Avison’s orchestra in Newcastle, and then he had jobs as an organist, first in Halifax, then at the Octagon Chapel in Bath. Not only that, but William Herschel was also a composer, and you can still hear his music played sometimes on the more adventurous classical music stations (worth checking out in my opinion, as is the music of Charles Avison, by the way). When Caroline joined him in Bath, she trained as a singer and performed as a soloist in a variety of concerts which her brother conducted. However, she refused to perform with any other conductor, and as William’s interest in music waned, her career declined as well.

William’s new passion was astronomy, and at first Caroline went along with it simply to support her brother in his endeavours. Soon however, she became interested herself. No doubt those lessons in arithmetic, which she had taken alongside singing, came in handy now.

In 1781, William discovered the planet Uranus – he called it ‘Georgium sidus’ after the king George III. The king was interested and pleased, appointed Herschel as ‘the king’s astronomer’, granted him a pension and asked him to move closer to Windsor. William gave up music, concentrated on astronomy full time and moved house according to the king’s wishes, and Caroline came with him. Working mainly as her brother’s assistant, she acquired more and more knowledge in astronomy herself and took to observing the night sky by herself – ‘sweeping’ it with the telescope.

In 1787 Caroline made a discovery of her own – a comet. This made quite a splash at the time: after all, this was the first ‘lady’s comet’. It was indeed very unusual for a woman to make scientific discoveries like that. Most women at the time didn’t get the opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills needed. William Herschel probably valued his sister most as his assistant in astronomy and as manager of his household, but at the same time he didn’t stop her learning from him or using that knowledge in her own right. It is interesting to note, though, that Caroline made her discovery (and subsequent discoveries) at a time when her brother was not at home. She also took care to announce her discoveries as quickly as she could to influential friends (such as the Astronomer Royal Neville Maskelyne), so that no one could take the credit away from her.


Caroline Herschel’s drawing of her comet observation

Caroline wrote a paper on her comet, which became the first paper by a woman to be read at the Royal Society, and one of the first papers by a woman to be published in a scientific journal. Sadly, in spite of her accomplishments, she could not be elected as a fellow of the Royal Society – they didn’t let women in until 1945!

Caroline went on to discover several more comets, one of which bears her name: 35P/Herschel-Rigollet. She also discovered a nebula, Messier 110 (or NGC  205). And she made more important contributions to astronomy. One was the Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars, a revised version of John Flamsteed’s catalogue, which had contained numerous inconsistencies and errors. Caroline’s catalogue was published by the Royal Society in 1798. An interesting point (to me at least) is the fact that William had realised that work on the Flamsteed catalogue needed to be done to make it properly usable, but, as the Wikipedia article puts it, he ‘was reluctant to devote time to it at the expense of his more interesting astronomical activities’. In other words, he couldn’t be bothered with something so boring as checking, cross-referencing and indexing, so he passed that task on to Caroline. She was already used to recording and organising her brother’s observations, and had drawn up her own catalogue, so she was well suited to the task. This own catalogue I just mentioned is something she came up with because she found working with Flamsteed’s catalogue difficult when recording William’s observations. Flamsteed had sorted his catalogue by constellation, and she found it tricky to find in it what particular star William was using as a reference point to the nebulae he was observing. She therefore drew up a new catalogue, which sorted the stars by distance from the Pole Star (or to be more precise, by polar distance, the angular distance of a celestial object on its meridian measured from the celestial pole). This catalogue became the New General Catalogue, which is still used today (hence the number NGC 205 of the nebula referred to above).

This type of work is always perceived as unglamourous and not very sexy, but I say hurrah for cataloguing and indexing. Where would we be without it? Nerd Power! (as my sister likes to say)

Caroline’s achievements were recognised and rewarded in her lifetime. In 1787 the royal court started to pay her a salary – the first woman to be paid for her scientific work. In 1828 she received the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society and was named an Honorary Member of the same society in 1835.

There has been some debate about how to judge Caroline Herschel’s accomplishments. In the past she has often been seen as nothing but her brother’s assistant – his ‘helpmeet’ as the old-fashioned word goes. More recently, and particularly following the efforts of feminist historians keen to reassess potentially overlooked women of the past, she has been characterised as an astronomer in her own right. So who is right?

I haven’t delved deeply into this debate, nor have I studied Caroline Herschel’s life in great detail, just enough to write this post. But here is what I think: if Caroline hadn’t been a ‘proper’ astronomer, she couldn’t have done what she in fact did. Her discoveries are not in question, but to make them she had to be able not only to use the equipment (remember that William wasn’t around) and to make sense of what she observed. She was also able to describe her observations in scientific terms – again, I don’t think anybody questions that she wrote her articles herself. And even when she was helping her brother, she used her scientific knowledge to do so. She didn’t simply write down what he dictated, but organised it, edited it and extrapolated from it. Even the ‘boring’ tasks of cataloguing and indexing would have been beyond her if she hadn’t been an astronomer. I think you will agree that to call her that is amply justified. As to how she ranks in importance compared to others in her field – well, that’s a debate I don’t even want to get into. All I want to say is that she deserves to be recognised and remembered. At the very least, I hope that my readers will agree with Captain Aubrey’s judgment:

“An admirable woman.”


Women from History: Maria Sibylla Merian

I have been very much neglecting the history part of my blog recently – I’ve rather lost my history blogging mojo. I’m currently trying a few things to get it back, and this is one of them.

Not only was International Women’s Day on the 8th of this month, apparently the whole month is Women’s History Month. Many bloggers are taking the cue to write about their favourite women from history, and ever the opportunist, I jumped onto the bandwagon. I intend to write about maybe not my ‘favourite women’, but at least women that I think you should know about.

As I said, I’ve been writing more about spiders than about history, so in order to facilitate a smooth transition to history, today I will stick with the creepy-crawly theme. Let me introduce you to Maria Sibylla Merian.


She was born in 1647 in Frankfurt, Germany, into a Swiss family. Her father was an engraver and publisher. He died when she was very young, and her stepfather, Jakob Marrel, was a painter of flowers and still lives. He encouraged her to paint, but where did her interest in insects come from? I don’t know, but she started to collect insects in her teens, kept silkworms and observed their lives and behaviour. She was particularly interested in the metamorphosis of butterflies and moths, and she collected all kinds of caterpillars to see what they would turn into. Not only that, but she also painted what she saw.

She continued to paint after her marriage, and she continued her observation of insects. Both combined resulted in her first book: ‘Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung’, a collection of engravings showing ‘the miraculous transformation and the curious flower diet of caterpillars’. The book was appreciated by its readers, but rather ignored by scientists, because it was written in German rather than Latin, the language of scientific publications at the time. It’s a shame it was ignored because while the life cycle of the butterfly was not unknown, nobody had observed it in such detail before and documented the observations in such realistic pictures. Merian’s book was special because it depicted its subjects in much more detail. Where previous works had illustrated the butterfly species with a picture of the adult, the caterpillar and the pupa each, Merian showed the variations between males and females, the differently coloured undersides of the wings and many more stages of their life cycles including the growing and moulting of the larvae. Another of her innovations was to show the insects with the plants they fed on, the holes in their leaves nibbled by caterpillars, and how adult butterflies and moths sucked nectar using a long proboscis. She also showed the eggs which the caterpillars hatched from. This was something many naturalists had missed so far. At the time it was still widely believed that insects (or at least their larvae) were spontaneously generated. Through careful observation and documentation Merian proved her contemporaries wrong.

In 1685 Merian moved into a Labadist commune in Friesland. The Labadists were a protestant community movement founded by Jean de Labadie. At that point she possibly had already left her husband or she left him now. At any rate, only her mother and her daughters moved in with the Labadists with her. Merian stayed for a few years, continued her nature studies and also learnt Latin.

In 1691 she moved to Amsterdam with her daughters. One of them married a merchant engaged in trade with Surinam, which was then a Dutch colony. This was an opportunity for Merian to travel to Surinam herself, which she did in 1699. Her purpose was to study the insects of Surinam. She spent two years there and in neighbouring countries, studying and recording the plant and insect life. When she came back, she published another book: Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (note: this time in Latin!).


Merian brought the same careful observation and artistic skills to bear on this book, which appeared in 1705. Again she described not only the insects as such, but their behaviour and their habitat. She came up with a classification system for the butterflies and moths and one for flies and bees, and used local names for the plants. One of these was ‘ananas’, still the German and Dutch word for pineapple. She recorded not only those but also beetles and ants, frogs, spiders, snakes and iguanas.


This was a truly pioneering work, and one should bear in mind how unusual it was for a woman at the time to make such a long journey for scientific purposes. She was however, at the time of her expedition, already part of the scientific community in Amsterdam, and her work was being noticed there and abroad. After her return from Surinam, she became even more widely known, well respected and sought out by scholars. Her work was of such high quality that Linnaeus based his classification of Surinam’s animals on her drawings. David Attenborough thinks she is one of the most significant entomologists .

While Merian’s significance is not in any doubt, work has only begun to re-evaluate that of her daughters, Johanna Helena Herolt and Dorothea Maria Graff. They were also talented artists and often collaborated with their mother. Because of that, though, they have often not been credited, but now works are slowly being re-attributed to their true creators.

I hope you enjoyed this introduction to an important woman of science. I hope to introduce you to some more before the end of Women’s History Month. Although – we don’t really need a special month to talk about amazing women, do we?

The Spider Returns

Yes, it’s more about the spider, because this morning it was back! It was sitting in the bath this time, so I had another look. I am now pretty sure that it’s actually a house spider (Tegenaria), even though the colour is unusual. But I’ve read that while the spider is still growing, and particularly before it moults, it can look dark brown, almost black, which it does. Also, when I said it has red legs, I didn’t mean bright red, I meant more reddish brown, or more red in comparison with the body. It all fits, so I think I have identified my spider after all.

I left it in the bathtub when I went to work. If it’s still there when I come back, I will have to put it out, though, because I want to take a shower. Spiders are surprisingly waterproof, and they could even survive being swept down the plughole, but it’s the residue of soap, shampoo and detergent that harm the spider. I saw an experiment once on a nature programme where they simulated the flushing away of a spider with pure water, and it was fine, but you’re not going to have pure water in the real shower. Anyway, I don’t want to flush it away, so it’s gonna be jar-and-postcard time!

If I had a tank, I could keep it in there until it moults and watch it. I could conceivably just keep it in a large jar, but it might starve before it does anything interesting, so I’d better not. A friend of mine claims that when you throw a spider out the door, it’ll be back inside within the hour. But as long as it doesn’t sit where I want to sit, I don’t really mind.

Mystery Spider

Yes, I’m talking about spiders, again. Arachnophobes, look away now. No pictures, though.

One of my Christmas presents was a spider guide. I have had an insect guide for many years which has a few spiders appended to it, but I thought it would be nice to have something a bit more detailed. Not that I see a lot of spiders that need identifying, but I just like having these books. I have a fat book on fungi, but I don’t carry it round with me trying to identify every mushroom I see. When I went to New York, I bought a copy of “Eastern Birds” beforehand, because I’m not familiar with all the American birds I was hoping to see. In the end all I got was a few Robins and a Gray Catbird. But I still like having the book.

I had asked for this spider book for Christmas. Yes, I’m 46, but Santa still expects a wish list from me every year. I try to put things on it that are easily available in Germany (where Santa is based), so this book is in German. It illustrates and describes over 400 European spiders, and also features some of their relatives, like scorpions, mites and millipedes. It also has an introduction with many interesting spider facts, tips on how to find spiders and even how to photograph them. It’s nice just to look at the pictures. The jumping spiders in particular have very cute faces. (If you google jumping spider, one of the first suggested searches that comes up is “jumping spider cute”.)

My current house gets a few invertebrate guests, but it’s not exactly infested. There are slugs in the kitchen, which I never get to see – only their trails. There are of course the spiders, but not many this time of year. I used to have quite a few woodlice, but they have disappeared. What I like is that sometimes you get to see things you’ve only seen on television before. One flat I lived in was brilliant for that. It was at the back of a house with a yard (and I mean yard in the British sense as in something paved, not yard in the American sense which we would call a garden). Over the year that I lived there the yard completely overgrew with brambles, and there were other weeds or abandoned plants around. But there were a lot of ladybirds. I saw their larvae and then their pupae everywhere, which was a first for me. I so wanted to watch a ladybird hatch. I used to take a few of the larvae and put them in a jar. I even went so far as to take the jar to work, so I wouldn’t miss the moment. And yet they all managed to hatch unobserved.

There were some abandoned roses beside the door, and they had aphids on them. And these aphids were “milked” by ants – again, something I had only seen on TV, but now I could observe it live! Brilliant! There were also beautiful moths called Cinnabar. The caterpillars are brightly striped, and the moths are out in the daytime. There were plenty of weeds for them to eat (the caterpillars that is).

And then there was the story with the other caterpillar. I had bought a family pack of peppers, and in one of them I found a caterpillar. So I thought, wouldn’t it be exciting to find out what this caterpillar develops into? So I put it in a jar with a chunk of pepper to eat and popped it back in the fridge. After 2 weeks it hadn’t done anything except eat, and I was getting impatient. I thought, maybe the cold is delaying its development, so I took the jar out of the fridge. The pepper went mushy, a little puddle spread on the bottom, and the caterpillar drowned in it. I still think of that episode with disappointment, sadness and shame.

Anyway, back to the spiders. There are not many about in winter, so there hasn’t been anything for me to identify. But last night I noticed a spider hanging on the bathroom ceiling. And it wasn’t your usual spindly spider either (I mean Cellar Spiders) or a big House Spider (“much feared” says my spider book), it was something different. Brilliant! I got the book, got a chair to get a close-up look, and even got a magnifying glass, although that wasn’t much help, and the spider wasn’t tiny either. It was quite attractive, with a black body and red legs with dark knees. Pretty distinctive, you’d think. But could I find it in the book? No! I spent about 40 minutes trying to identify this spider, but failed. There were some that had the right look, but the wrong size, or the wrong distribution. I suppose I could have caught it and looked at it that way, but I’m not sure that would have made any difference. I gently blew on it once, to check if it was actually alive. It twitched its legs, so yes. In the end I left it there and went back downstairs. It was still there when I went to bed, but this morning it had gone. Will I see it again? Will I be able to find out what it is? Will it survive the winter in my house? Who knows…

At Home,With Nature

Over Christmas and New Year, I went to Germany to spend the days with my family. It’s always nice to go back. My parents never moved from the flat they bought before I was born, and my bedroom still exists. It even has my old furniture in it, along with books and toys. Occasionally it gets used as a guest bedroom, but otherwise it’s just waiting for me to return periodically.

My home town is a small town in a rural part of Germany characterised by a number of lakes – apparently there are over 200 of them in the region! Google ‘Ostholsteinische Seenplatte’ – there’s a mouthful of German for you! Anyway, there are three of these lakes in my home town, and fields, and woods, and every time a go back I look out for some particular animals. Let me tell you how I fared.

First up, a failure. I didn’t get to see the eagles this time, I didn’t even go to look for them. Have I mentioned the eagles before? Just outside of town is a tiny wetland reserve with a resident pair of Whitetailed Sea Eagles. Oh yes! I have seen them before, but not the last few times I went, and as I said, this time I didn’t even go.

This being winter, there were a lot of geese, though. There are geese all year round, but there are more of them in winter. Canada Geese and Greylag Geese. They congregate on the fields and fly past the living room windows, honking.

Then there are the usual birds on the lakes, Mallards, Tufted Ducks and Coots. The odd Moorhen. And Goldeneyes. According to the RSPB website, there are only 200 breeding pairs in the UK, but 27,000 wintering birds. In my hometown, they are there all year round, and the local wildlife group puts up nestboxes for them. So I’ve known them all my life, but they are still a bit special. Very pretty birds.

One bird I always look out for when I’m there in the winter is the Goosander. And yes, I spotted several of them, so that was a big tick on my list.

And lastly, every time I go to Germany, I hope for a sight of a red squirrel. The reds have a special status in the UK, they have been almost pushed out by the greys (originally from America) and only a few pockets of them are left. In Germany, though, the common squirrel is the red, and it is very common and widespread. It was almost at the end of my holiday, but I did see one. We were in a park in a different town, beside a different lake, and I spotted one running past. It was carrying something in its mouth, but I couldn’t see what it was.

So, all in all, my nature spotting was quite successful. Also, my parents live a few floors up, so we got views of some amazing sunsets. I don’t always wish for clear skies. Of course, I don’t want it to rain all the time, either, but without the clouds the sunsets wouldn’t be so amazing. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere without proper seasons either. The thought of retiring somewhere South, where it’s always warm, doesn’t really appeal to me. I might grumble about permanently cold toes in winter (hello, toes? are you actually still there? cos I can’t feel you), or too much rain in spring, but really I enjoy the seasons. I don’t mind the days getting shorter in autumn, and I’m used to very short days in winter – it’s what I grew up with. I like to observe the gradual changes, the waxing and waning. It’s a change that is gradual, not sudden, and follows a predictable cycle. That’s my kind of change! Soon there will be snowdrops and crocuses in the gardens, then daffodils, then tulips. The first leaves will appear, grow bigger, everything will start to look light green. Then in May everything bursts into flower, lilac and laburnum and horse chestnuts. The green gradually darkens as we move into summer. Some flowers disappear, others appear instead. Until it changes again in autumn, into red and yellow and brown. And then it’s winter again, the stark silhouette of bare trees against the low sun, mist rising from the fields and frost on the verges. I get to witness is all because, annoyed as I get with my commute, most of it is on country roads with plenty of nature or at least agriculture on either side, and it really makes you experience the change of the seasons. At this time of year, the sun rises as I set off to work, and it often looks amazing, and it sets before I finish work, and I can watch it from the office window, and it often looks absolutely stunning. Maybe not today since it’s cloudy, but often enough.

So no, I don’t like the rain and I don’t like the cold and I don’t like being stuck in traffic, but I have all these tiny pleasures to compensate, and that’s good.

Random Favourites

You know those questionnaires the papers give celebrities: ‘Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?’ ‘Which book made you cry?’ ‘What is your favourite film?’, that sort of thing.

Here are the answers to a bunch of questions nobody ever asked me.

Favourite colour?

Blue. Always has been. My mother’s favourite is also blue. I like all kinds of other colours, too, and I wear clothes in many different colours, but my favourite is definitely blue. I always get a bit conflicted when Autism Awareness Month rolls round and the autistic community calls for a boycott of blue, so as not to align themselves with Autism Speaks type activities. But that isn’t really a thing here in the UK anyway. I love blue. I embrace blue, all year round.

Favourite planet?

Saturn. It’s just the coolest, with its rings and everything. It is also my favourite movement from Gustav Holst’s suite ‘The Planets’, in which it is called ‘Saturn, the bringer of old age’. I like the astrological connotations as well. As a Capricorn, my sign is dominated by Saturn, and it’s all about boring stuff like responsibility, rationality, discipline and hard work etc. But I like that. Also melancholy, which I experience a lot. Also I was born on a Saturday, which is of course ‘Saturn’s Day’. So it’s definitely my planet.

Favourite film?

Sense and Sensibility. But:

Greatest film ever made?

Once Upon A Time In The West.

Favourite disabled character in fiction? (Weird question? Well, it’s something I’ve been thinking about.)

Matthew Shardlake. But I have a soft spot for Felix Leiter as well.

Favourite disabled character on television?

Harold Finch.

Favourite rock band?

The Rolling Stones.

Favourite composer?

I can’t possibly answer that. I can’t pick one favourite, and anyway, preferences change over time. When I was a baby, my parents say, I seemed to get particularly excited when Handel played on the radio. Now I have a taste for Wagner and Richard Strauss, more the instrumental stuff than the operas. I wouldn’t nominate them as my favourite composers though. My mother is pleased because her father was a big fan of Strauss, but that sort of music means nothing to her, so she likes the fact that I like it. Maybe the taste for it skipped a generation.

Favourite book?

Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers. I have read it so many times, I read it about once a year, but it never gets boring. It’s also the book that kindled a desire to come to Oxford – I ended up working there for over a decade. One of the few things I count as a success in my life. I don’t work there anymore, and I don’t live there, but I’m not far away, and I go into Oxford every few weeks. So when I read the book, I know the setting extremely well. My non-fiction comfort read is ‘Delusions of Gender’ by Cordelia Fine. I love books which tell me that the whole male brain/female brain thing is nonsense, and this book tells it with such vigour and humour that it’s irresistible.

Favourite bit of movie trivia?

Al Pacino’s ancestors came from Corleone.

I can’t resist sharing this gem with you either – I heard it from my sister, no idea if it’s true:

When they were making the third (or maybe forth) Harry Potter film, the director gave his three young protagonists a bit of homework: write down how they think their character has developed over the course of the films. Rupert Grint (Ron) didn’t do it. Daniel Radcliffe (Harry) scribbled down a single page. Emma Watson (Hermione) handed in a twelve-page essay.

Favourite literary anecdote?

John Galsworthy trained as a barrister, but his family had a shipping business. Once, when travelling on one of his family’s ships, he struck up a friendship with the First Mate – Joseph Conrad.

That’s all for now. I’ll give you some more when I can think of them.

Japanese Cars

This is probably the most pointless blogpost ever, but it’s something that amused and pleased me a bit. Not something funny or great, just something kind of nice.

My sister has just bought a car. She and her family did without one for years, but now she has started a new job, and the location, the nature of the job and the hours made it necessary to buy a car. So she went and bought one, used, and I was pleased to find out that she, too, had gone for one of the lesser spotted Japanese brands: I have a Suzuki, she has bought a Daihatsu. I don’t know what model, but she sent me a picture, and she claims it’s the cutest car in the world. Now, that is debatable, but it’s a nice looking car. My parents have just visited my sister and went for a drive in it.

And that is literally it.

Okay, to make this a bit more amusing for you, I can tell you this: this morning my car was shat on by a passing bird from a great height. I didn’t see the culprit, but there were a few gulls around at that time, so it might have been one of them. It went splat right on the windscreen, and as I picked up speed, the wet poo spread further upwards…

Now, some say it’s lucky to be pooped on by a bird. I don’t know if the same goes for cars. It’s not so lucky for me because now I have to clean it. Oh well.