Who was the first female scientist? When did women enter the arena of science, so long the sole purview of men?

The answer might surprise you. En Hedu’anna, chief astronomer priestess of the moon goddess of the Babylonian area of Akkad, appointed to her post by her father, Sargon of Akkad, is the first female scientist whose name is officially recorded:

The true woman who possesses exceeding wisdom,
She consults a tablet of lapis lazuli
She gives advice to all lands…
She measures off the heavens,
She places the measuring-cords on the earth.

– En Hedu’anna, astronomer priestess of the Moon Goddess, circa 2354 BCE.

Sculpture of En Hedu'anna

Sculpture of En Hedu’anna

When we think of astronomers, rarely do the names of women come quickly to mind. But they were always there, probably even preceding En Hedu’anna. Women looked up at the stars and wondered, just like men did.

When it comes to firsts, German-born Caroline Herschel, an 18th/19th century astronomer, recorded several. In 1786 she became the first woman to discover a comet. She went on to discover six more. Full credit goes to her for five of those seven comets, and several are named for her.

On learning of these achievements, King George III authorized her an annual salary of 50 pounds, thereby making her the first woman in England to ever be paid for her scientific work.

In 1828 Britain’s Royal Astronomical Society, which had published Herschel’s star catalogues in 1799,  honored her with their highest award for her catalogue of nebulae—the first woman to receive their gold medal, which did not go to another female until Vera Rubin earned it in 1996. Herschel not only catalogued nebulae, but the woman fascinated by the heavens discovered a number of them herself.

In 1832, her achievements won her a medal from the King of Denmark. In 1835, Caroline Herschel and the Scottish astronomer Mary Somerville were designated as members, albeit “honorary” members, of the Royal Astronomical Society. Though it was honorary due to their genders, still they were the first women to achieve such status.

Herschel suffered the lifelong effects of smallpox and typhus, leaving her with a scarred face, disfigured eye, and stunted growth. She stood 4’3″ tall, at the most. An intelligent woman seemingly destined to be an old maid, she happily, at age 22, accepted her brother William’s invitation to join him in England.

William, like his father, was a musician with a penchant for astronomy. Eventually the science won out and he pursued it full-time, teaching it to his sister, along with mathematics. Caroline, who was training for a singing career, became just as enthused with the skies as her brother and, as he did, gave herself up entirely to a study of the stars, once noting, “However long we live, life is short, so I work. And however important man becomes, he is nothing compared to the stars. There are secrets … and it is for us to reveal them.”

Both switched from being professional musicians with a hobby in astronomy to becoming astronomers with music as their hobby. William and Caroline pursued the modern as opposed to the Ptolemaic school of astronomy, and made an enormous contribution to our unfolding knowledge of the universe.

Abdu’l-Baha said of this new day of God ushered in by the Bab and Baha’u’llah:

Sciences and arts are being molded anew. Thoughts are metamorphosed. The foundations of human society are changing and strengthening. Today sciences of the past are useless. The Ptolemaic system of astronomy and numberless other systems and theories of scientific and philosophical explanation are discarded, known to be false and worthless. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 144.

Know then that those mathematical questions which have stood the test of scrutiny and about the soundness of which there is no doubt are those that are supported by incontrovertible and logically binding proofs and by the rules of geometry as applied to astronomy; that are based on observations of the stars and careful astronomical research, and are in conformity with the principles of the universal themes expounded in the divine sciences. For it is by applying the outward world to the inner, the high to the low, the small to the large, the general to the particular that, with abundant clearness, it becometh apparent that the new rules arrived at by the science of astronomy are in closer accord with the universal divine principles than the other erroneous theories and propositions … – Abdu’l-Baha, Tablet of the Universe (provisional translation).

After William’s death in 1822, Caroline returned to her childhood home in Hanover. She was then 72 years old, yet she continued her life’s work. At the age of 96 her lifetime achievements were recognized with the award of  the King of Prussia’s Gold Medal for Science “in recognition of the valuable services rendered to Astronomy by you, as the fellow-worker of your immortal brother, Sir William Herschel, by discoveries, observations, and laborious calculations.”

She died the following year.

But the Essence of Divinity, the Sun of Truth, shines forth upon all horizons and is spreading its rays upon all things. Each creature is the recipient of some portion of that power, and man, who contains the perfection of the mineral, the vegetable and animal, as well as his own distinctive qualities, has become the noblest of created beings. It stands written that he is made in the Image of God. Mysteries that were hidden he discovers; and secrets that were concealed he brings into the light. By Science and by Art he brings hidden powers into the region of the visible world. – Abdu’l-Baha, Abdu’l-Baha in London, p. 23.

Such a one was Caroline Herschel.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of BahaiTeachings.org or any institution of the Baha’i Faith.

8 Comments

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  • Steph Greis
    Jun 27, 2017
    "When we think of astronomers, rarely do the names of women come quickly to mind."
    Out of the physical sciences astronomy actually has one of the highest proportions of women (~30%). There are and have been many more since Herschel. One who comes to mind for both her scientific&religious devotion is Jocelyn Bell Burnell...
    As much as I appreciate a post about female scientists, only having two names mentioned in the text is a sad indication of the general public's awareness of the role and impact of women in science (this isn't a criticism of the author but of society). ...As a female astronomer myself, whose supervisor is a women, who cites many papers by female astronomers, whose female friend just got her PhD - I hope this will soon change!
    Read more...
  • Behrooz Tahririha
    Jun 20, 2017
    Well the time has come, as prophesied in the Baha'i scriptures, when the powers of the feminine side is gaining ascendancy, and powers of masculinity is lessening. As Abdul'Baha has stated, mankind is heading towards a society where the powers of feminine and masculine will be more balanced. This NEWLY occurring change in human evolution, is providing the right conditions for a massive upsurge and rightful presence of the feminine traits globally. So mankind; watch it ! the new world is rising from its slumber, the egg shell is breaking. The dawn has broken.
  • Charles Boyle
    Jun 20, 2017
    Perhaps it was eve who experimented with the consequences of eating an apple...
    (Should have secured ethical guideline clearance first)
  • Melanie Black
    Jun 20, 2017
    I've always been fascinated by astronomy and physics so this wonderful essay was of great interest to me. (So were the previous comments). Apparently there has been as much a thirst for knowledge among women as men all through history, only they were more hidden, given the patriarchal societies in which most of the world has lived for millennia. Thank you again.
  • Jun 20, 2017
    Stories like this about the history of science are fascinating. There is a severe shortage of women in science and technology, and most non-scientists don't have much of an idea what science is about. The history of science can help bridge the gap.
  • Jun 20, 2017
    Let's not forget the amazing Hypatia! She had such an astounding mind and spirit that even in a totally patriarchal world of the last days of the Roman Empire men flocked to take a seat in her classes. (There's also a great movie about her - AGORA).
  • Jun 20, 2017
    As with religion itself, women were the leaders, and men have somewhat temporarily leapfrogged into the lead ... as education becomes more equal, women's superior intelligence (better integration of the two cerebral hemispheres, larger brain size in proportion to body weight, etc.) will surely put them back in the lead! From being dominant, men can evolve into being appreciative!
  • Örs Lustwerk-Dudás
    Jun 20, 2017
    Hi Jaine,
    1678: Elena Corner Piscopia, first woman to earn a doctorate of philosophy at a 'western" university
    1732: Laura Bassi, second woman to earn a doctorate of philosophy at a "western" university, went on to be Professor of Physics at the University of Bologna. She had a teaching appointment at Bologna, but could give only one public lecture each year because she was female; she taught students in her own home.
    1678 is only about 40 years after the founding of the first scientific societies in Europe.