Analysed retrospectively, it was quite lucky that Caroline Herschel suffered typhoid fever when she was ten years old: the fever stopped her growing and she was to be forever one meter and thirty centimetres tall. This handicap placed her away from the marital life any woman of her time and status would have expected but instead allowed her to devote herself to science, to astronomy in particular, until the day she died at 98.
Born in Hannover in 1750, she was the sister of the famous astronomer Sir William Herschel, whom he followed to Britain after their father’s death in 1767. When William became George III’s personal astronomer, after having discovered the planet Uranus the previous year, Caroline became his assistant not only cleaning lenses and assembling telescopes, she also copied full astronomical catalogues and, in due time, learnt how to register and organise the data gathered by his brother. Encouraged and taught by him, who also built her a telescope fitting to her small stature, she made her own first observations only after a year, in 1782. As her brother’s assistant, she was the first woman in history to receive a salary as a researcher, 50 pounds per year that King George III granted her from 1787. She discovered at least seven new comets, one of which 35P/Herschel-Rigollet, carries her name, and confirmed the existence of Andromeda Nebulose. Maybe her most significant contributions was the systematization of star catalogues for her brother (published by the Royal Society in 1798) and her nephew, John Herschel. In 1828, the Royal Astronomical Society granted her the Gold Medal for her contributions to science. No other woman will receive it again until 1996, when it was granted to Vera Rubin. In 1835 she was elected honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society and in 1838 member of the Royal Irish Academy. Two years before dying, the king of Prussia, Frederick William IV, granted her the Prussian Gold Medal for Science after having returned to Prussia upon the death of her brother in 1822. She was, aside from petite and hard, apparently quite bad tempered. She died without issue, but a crater in the moon carries her name.