Who was the first paid woman in the field of astronomy?
William Herschel (1738-1822) is remembered for the discovery of the planet Uranus. He is also the older brother of Caroline Herschel (1750-1848), the first female scientist to receive a salary, the first woman in England to hold a government position, and the discoverer of several comets.
Caroline Lucretia Herschel was born in Hanover, Germany, and moved to London, England in 1772 to look after her brother's household. Whilst William studied, Caroline did, as she wrote in her memoirs, “what a well-trained puppy dog would have done, that is to say, […] what he commanded." Eventually, she started making her own observations of the night sky and discovered a dwarf elliptical galaxy, now known as Messier 110.
In 1786, Caroline spotted her first comet and was presented to the royal family at Windsor Castle. After discovering her eighth comet in 1797, King George III gave her an annual salary of £50 (equivalent to £6,400 in 2021), making her the first woman in England with an official government position. She was also the first paid woman in the field of astronomy.
In 1835, the Royal Astronomical Society elected Caroline an Honorary Member. She shared the honour of the first female member with the Scottish scientist Mary Somerville (1780-1872).