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The Inimitable Caroline

The sister of British astronomer William Herschel was herself a capable and pioneering celestial observer

J.Donald Fernie

Caroline%20and%20William%20HerschelClick to Enlarge ImageIt is often said that behind every successful man there is a woman. She is usually a wife or mother; less often is she a sister. But such was the case for the pioneering 18th-century astronomer William Herschel. His eventual success as a scientist was due in no small measure to his sister, Caroline.

Born in 1738 to a musical family in Hanover, in what would later become Germany, William became an oboist in a military band while still a teenager. He abandoned this career upon discovering that the musicians, having marched the soldiers into battle, had to fend for themselves during actual combat. Cowering in wet ditches while musket and cannon balls whistled overhead did not augur well for either health or longevity, so William decided to pursue his musical career elsewhere. At 19 he made his way to England and in 1766 became organist and orchestra leader at the fashionable resort of Bath. Here he gave thought to his sister.

Caroline was 12 years younger than William, and like him, she inherited their father's musical talent. With few career options open to women of her time, her desperate wish was to achieve sufficient education to become a governess teaching music and literature. Her father was sympathetic to the idea, but her mother dismissed it. As a result, her father's death in 1767 condemned Caroline to be little more than a teenage drudge in the family kitchen. When William invited her to join his musical world in Bath she leapt at the opportunity.

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