The Herschels: A Scientific Family


A review of The Herschels: A Scientific Family in Training, by Emily Winterburn.

William Herschel and his family have long been subjects of interest for historians and popularizers. The Herschels were blessed with uncommon longevity: two event-filled centuries elapsed from the time of William’s birth in 1738 to the death of his youngest grandchild in 1939. The lives of the notable among them (William, his sister Caroline and son John) were rife with exciting tales of adventure, discovery and royal patronage that provided lessons on the value of adaptability, devotion and hard work. They endowed the public record with vast catalogues of celestial bodies, treatises on science and philosophy, as well as personal memoirs and correspondence.

With all that has been written on the Herschels to date one might imagine that this mother lode of documentation has been played out. But as Emily Winterburn ably shows in The Herschels:  A Scientific Family in Training, there are unmined veins waiting to be worked. Indeed, her detailed portrayal of the first three generations of their scientific dynasty offers fresh insight into the lives and contributions of key, but lesser known, family members. In it, she demonstrates that giants often stand on shoulders, too.

A principal theme throughout Winterburn’s thesis is the importance of education in every Herschel’s life regardless of gender or celebrity. She shows that in each generation, parents made deliberate choices among available educational options to maximize their children’s opportunities for future success. By identifying and analyzing these choices and the values on which they were based, Winterburn casts new light on their long term influence on the younger generation and their own choices later in life.

The Herschels’ past biographers have often ignored or glossed over the day-to-day mundaneness of these choices. Instead they have dwelt on neat sequences of select and seemingly choiceless events that led William from Hanover to England, from music to astronomy, from obscure amateur to court astronomer; transformed Caroline from skilled household manager to musician to collaborative scientific assistant; and marked each successful step in John’s rise as a pre-eminent scientist and philosopher. Their accounts convey a powerful illusion of inevitability that risks numbing all curiosity about the why and how of such transitions.

By contrast, Winterburn examines the developmental as well as the defining events in all the Herschels’ lives. Her inclusive approach “allows the quieter voices… to be heard in their own terms” (p. 14). Letting these voices speak for themselves exposes the Herschels’ transitions as products of numerous incremental choices based on aspirations and options informed by a complex array of social, cultural, political and intellectual factors.

In Chapters 1 and 2, Winterburn presents the first generation. Her welcome investigation of William’s cautious and gradual shift from music to astronomy between 1760 and 1781 — a period mentioned only in passing by most biographers — reveals the extent to which he was influenced by his parents’ concern with upward social mobility; how he took advantage of his early exposure to and growing interest in natural philosophy to give himself an edge in a large field of competitive musicians; and how he used his musical training both to gain access to high society and to legitimate his status as a serious amateur in the scientific community.

By offering Caroline’s perspective on the decisions that produced her life-changing transitions, Winterburn portrays this enterprising woman as less a passive pawn than an active agent in them. Caroline’s choices reflect how well she, like her siblings, had assimilated her parents’ goals. Prepared and eager to contribute to the family enterprise, she proved to be both a lifelong learner of whatever skills (domestic, social, musical, mathematical, observational) were needed to achieve those goals, and a demanding seeker of instruction from whoever she believed had the necessary expertise.

In Chapters 3 and 4, Winterburn turns to John Frederick William Herschel, the family’s second generation. Past biographers have made much of John’s native ability and have thus felt little need to discuss his early education, but Winterburn argues that his parents worked hard to ensure that his entire educational experience — up to and including university — met their demanding personal expectations and standards. William went to great lengths to provide his son the one thing his own education lacked: exposure to and mastery of Continental mathematics.

Winterburn devotes Chapter 4 to John’s life after university. Despite — perhaps because of — the intensity of his early mathematical training, he elected to pursue other career interests, beginning with law. Gradually drawn to the experimental sciences, he soon earned a reputation as an exemplary man of science, not as heir to his father’s fame, but as a true Whewellian “scientist” in his own right (p. 143).

In Chapter 5, Emily Winterburn bridges the second and third generations with an intimate and insightful portrait of John’s wife, the former Margaret Brodie Stewart, who eschewed any overt role as her husband’s scientific partner. Nevertheless, she participated in the family enterprise as his helpmeet and mother of their twelve children. Winterburn boldly identifies Margaret’s contributions as a form of collaborative assistance that enabled the couple to operate a “single-career family” (p. 146). John helped plan educational opportunities and daily activities designed to enhance his children’s lives and futures. Like William, John wanted his children to have what he felt was missing in his own childhood: happiness and the freedom to pursue activities of their own choosing.

Winterburn concludes with a survey of the Herschels’ third generation — John and Margaret’s twelve children — and the educational opportunities and career choices made both for and by them. If this generation, like its predecessor, had contained just one child, perhaps biographers could have devoted equal attention to them. But the twelve have been treated more as a brood of worthy — but hardly exceptional — individuals, none of whose achievements matched those of previous generations. Winterburn corrects this misperception. Limited opportunities for gainful employment as a professional scientist in nineteenth-century Britain made it unrealistic for John and Margaret to hope that their children would pursue scientific careers. Instead they provided all their daughters and sons with a broad intellectual grounding that would enable them to be good citizens, “do something useful” with their lives and, above all, be “happy, comfortable and financially secure” (p. 178).

Rather than focus on select episodes that punctuate the evolution of a science and the lives of those who contributed to its development, Winterburn has cast her net over the whole of the Herschels’ archival record to capture stories told by the quieter voices among them that for too long have lain hidden and ignored. Her careful study demonstrates that to hear these voices requires not only a willingness to listen, but readiness to learn something new and possibly unexpected. She offers a valuable template for future scholars in search of new questions to ask and answer about the history of science.

Barbara J. Becker
University of California, Irvine

Primary Sources

British Library Archives
Herschel Collection, Henry Ransom Center, University of Texas
John Herschel-Shorland’s Private Collection
Royal Astronomical Society Library Archives
Royal Society Library Archives

Dissertation Information

Imperial College London. 2011. 246pp. Primary Advisors: Robert Iliffe and Andrew Warwick.

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