Scientific families


The mid nineteenth century was an exciting time for science. Dramatic discoveries and new theories were turning the world upside-down. But science was not the world of specialism and laboratories we know today. Indeed, much of it was conducted on a very domestic scale. Just as there were manufacturing dynasties at the time, like the Cadburys, and literary families like the Brontë’s, there were a number of scientific families who had a huge impact on the way science came to be practised and perceived. One such family were the Herschels – contemporaries, friends and neighbours of the Darwins, and for whom the term ‘scientist’ was first used.

Jo Barratt met up with Dr Emily Winterburn, who has recently completed her PhD on the Herschel family, at Down House, Darwin’s restored family home just south of London – a house very like that of the Herschels to explore with her the complex and inseparable link between family life and scientific progress in this period. Our story begins with William Herschel, a German-born musician who moved to the UK before making his name as astronomer, composer and man of science.

Emily Winterburn: His father was an army musician, his mother was completely illiterate. They were quite a poor family, lots of brothers, two sisters. His father trained all the boys – never mind the girls – but he trained all the boys to be musicians. William said from the moment he was big enough to hold a violin he was taught, so that by the age of fourteen they were ready to be auditioned for work in the army band.  

My father’s greatest attachment to music determined him to endeavour to make all his sons complete musicians.’

EW: But they were all brought up to learn not just to be musicians like their father but to be better musicians than their father. They were taught to aspire high, they were taught and learned how to be court musicians. They were encouraged to learn languages, so that they could teach opera and they could teach singing to the great and the good. So they were brought up to aspire higher than their parents, and that is what he brought to John’s education. Obviously, the way you master music is by doing things over and over and over again until you are perfect. And that is what he did. So every minute of John’s day is filled with various educational activities. There is not much time for playing or fun, particularly as far as… that is the impression he gives, anyway.

Jo Barratt:  When William did set himself up in London he went about studying and mapping the sky and embarked on a career that would earn him the reputation and place in the history of science that he holds today.

EW: He grows up as a musician, but when he comes to England he turns to science. He starts to building his own telescopes, starts training his eyes to see through them. Eventually, he discovers Uranus and that is what makes him famous, that is what gets him a king’s pension and allows him to devote his entire life to science and give up music. He changes the way how astronomy is done. Partly, it is because he discovers the first planet to be discovered since antiquity, but the other reason why he is important is because he changes the focus of astronomy. Before that, astronomers were interested in the solar system, they were interested in the things that are nearby. He starts to look at them in a bit more detail. He particularly looks at, he draws up catalogues of, double stars and clusters and nebulae and starts looking into more detail about what they actually are.

JB: But despite his achievements and the considerable respect he earned, he was still insecure in many respects which – again – went on the influence the teaching of his son.

EW: He found that although accepted – he discovered a planet, and he had worked out theories about the way stars evolve and he has done all sorts of amazing things – and he was the astronomer, Britain’s astronomer at the time. When Joseph Banks of the Royal Society had a question about astronomy, he would ask William Herschel. So, he had done very well. At the same time, he did feel slightly looked down upon. He did something technical, he made instruments. He never had a Cambridge degree, he made his own instruments and, most importantly, did not understand maths as well as he thought he should. So, there is a nice correspondence between him and Lalonde and Laplace in France where he sent them his papers. And they send back loads of corrections. His letter says: ‘Oh well, I was very tired and I had lots of things to do and it is an obvious mistake. It is not like I do not understand it’.

‘I have so little leisure for practice that it would be no wonder on account of the multiplicity of things that take up my time and continually disturb my thoughts when I am calculating, if have made many more blunders that I have made. The using of the heliocentric instead of the geocentric place of the GS was an oversight in the calculation of the angle of the position which I have since corrected. Upon the whole, I once more returned to you and Mr Delombre and your friendly notice thanks of my blunders which I hope you describe to my busy situation.’

EW: But he obviously did not understand it because he then, when it comes to training John, he gets the best tutors and he gets tutors who know both English fluxion, so the sort of Newtonian. Then, France has a different version, which is more what we think of as calculus now. Most people did not understand both of them, it was either one or other, but William made sure John understood both so he would excel from a very young age. He is trained to follow his father’s footsteps, to become a natural philosopher and  part of the Royal Society and do great things. And, when he goes to university and starts making his own friends, he starts to question that as an ambition. He dabbles into various experimental sciences; a bit of chemistry, a bit of mineralogy, getting his hands dirty. Things he was not taught to do.

Gradually, he builds up a reputation that is separate from that of his parents, writes a book ‘Preliminary Discourses on Natural Philosophy’. A very influential book, lots of people read it. Darwin claims to have read it and that is what inspired him to get into science. It defines what science is. Before that, you have astronomy, chemistry, mineralogy, all separate things. He draws out the central themes. And that makes his name, it makes him a famous man of science.

You do not even have the term scientist until 1833 and even after that it takes a long time for people to pick it up. It was introduced as a joke, as a kind of ‘well, you know, we need to call ourselves something. You have art-ists, so why not scient-ists?’. And it was invented for John Herschel, primarily it was one of his friend that said it as a throwaway comment that then got taken up a little bit more. In William Herschel’s time, there isn’t anything. There is no scientist. You have natural philosophy, which is broadly looking at the natural world. But you have your own distinct discipline. So, he was an astronomer and he tried to train his son to be more of a natural philosopher. To be a broader, more intellectual, less hands-on, man of science. You have men of science and women of science and you have natural philosophers but you don’t have scientists. It is in the late century before people start calling themselves scientists with any great pride.

JB: I know this may be a complete obvious question, but what was the stigma?

EW: I think it is partly the idea that it becomes a job. And so, whereas if you are doing it at your home and you are a natural philosopher or you are a man of science you are just broadly interested in these things. It is just something you do because for higher intellectual purposes, not something you do to earn a living or anything as degrading as that. Part of my argument about John Herschel is that he, although he in person he refused to accept money for the science he did and he liked the independence of having independent wealth and being able to choose, pick and choose his projects, he still argued for there being government funding for science. When there were opportunities to get paid for little bits of science he did try and put people into it . He liked the idea of people who could not afford to do it just as a bit of a hobby being able to do science and being able to get some money for it. So he was not really opposed to science being a profession and he wanted his children, some of his children at least, to get some money for the science they were doing.

JB: We are now walking through Darwin’s library, although it really resembles more of a study or an office. John Herschel would have worked from a similar setting.

EW: It is all these science-y bits, isn’t it? All this kind of, how do I it put it, sealing wax science. It is all bits that they stuck together to try to make experiments.

JB: The idea of a scientist did not exist, and so neither did the idea of a lab. Investigating the natural world and family life rubbed up against each other. They occupied the same space. The day-to-day comings and goings within the homes of the Darwins and the Herschels influenced the science that was possible, as much as this investigation left its mark on the growing Herschel children.

EW: We have got, on the main table, we have got all his writing and various books that, I think, have been sent to him. But also, all the tools to make microscope slides, because they have exactly the same thing, lots of little pill boxes made of what looks like shaved wood. Some of them in the Herschel collection, some are actually for pills but as well they used them for little crystal samples and just, just little bits and bobs to use for experiments. So this, obviously, I guess this is his lab. I do not know where this is necessarily where he was going to teach his children, but it is where he did his own research, because of a lot of the books.

But then with the Herschel family, when the older daughters are teaching the younger daughters, one of them comes across a question she does not know the answer to. And she goes off to his library, she goes off to her father’s library to kind of look it up. So, I think it is, this is where you go to find things out. This little wooden cabinet over here with lots of little drawers with little labels on. There is a couple of mini versions of that at the National Maritime Museum.

Which is why I started looking at the whole family because within each drawer, all kinds of little pieces of science but also pieces of domestic tat – really. It has little sowing scissors and a pin cushion, but that there is also a microscope slide with a crocodile’s tear on it and little lenses and little bits of material stuck together with sealing wax. So they have obviously been done to do little makeshift experiments in this way or another.

JB: Sort of like a kitchen drawer?

EW: Yes. It really shows that, how immersed in the family it obviously was. You do not have science as one thing and family life as another. It is just that, it is a kind of convenient drawer, and mostly you keep your science things all together in there because it is nice and neat, but sometimes you just need to put something away. The Herschels did have a separate room for their science, because there is, between the two siblings that go to university and go to Cambridge and they write to each other – there is twenty-five years between them – they can write to each other like ‘I’m going to clear up the lab. Is there anything you want to keep?’ That kind of thing. But, at the same time, it was still part of their home, their family life. By the end of the nineteenth century there is this idea that science has gone out of the home. If you are going to be a scientist, you work for a company or you work for a university and you go to a place of work to do your science. Whereas in this period, in the mid-nineteenth century and earlier,  science is quite often done in the home which means you get a different set of people doing it because it means family members are more involved in the process. It is not a separate – professionalisation is now kind of being broken down and it is not such a simple story, but there is a general trend to taking science further and further outside the home and therefore excluding people like women and children from the process.

JB: In the next room, we come across a selection of wooden toys and picture books which demonstrate the unavoidable link between science, family and learning within the home.

EW: So this, this is more of a midnineteenth century childhood. So, John’s education was very focused and very educational but he made sure that his children’s was a bit more balanced. There were attempts to make education fun. Maria Edgeworth, for example, writes a very influential book about how to teach children and to make things fun but educational. So, you should not read them fairy stories, you should read them educational fairy stories, scientific fairy stories. Do fun things but always give it an educational edge.

JB: So, it that what we can see here in small toy animals?

EW: Yes, exactly. Because these a proper animals. There are not unicorns, or the like.  There is a story about a pebble that is told from the point of view of the pebble which tells the whole history of geology from the point of view of a pebble] But it is aimed at children, it is kind of about the idea of getting them to look at things more. I think in the nineteenth century you do get more of a celebration of childhood thingy. There is a lot more of a kind of child-centred focus to the family. And these are big families. The Darwins and the Herschels and the Airies are huge families, following the Queen Victoria model!

JB: And now outside into the garden, which was seen as an increasingly important part of nineteenth century child rearing. A space occupying the middle ground between the home and the natural world which was the focus of science.

EW: When the Herschels come back from South Africa in 1838, they choose a house not dissimilar to this one, not far away from this one. And part of the reason they choose it, is because of the big grounds which the latest educational literature, child care literature, has said is ideal for strengthening the lungs of young children and encourages them to express themselves to run around roaring like lions, I think it said. And she does complain that it is all they do, just roar  like lions all the time and it is deafening. And that is why you need a big garden. It is not just that it is pretty, it has to do with it being beneficial.

JB: We are now going to jump back a generation with William’s sister Caroline, John’s aunt, to start to look at the importance of the Herschel women in the lives of the more well-known men of science in the family.

EW: One of the things that is nice about looking at the whole family is that you can look at the role women play in these families without needing the women to do amazing things in science. When there are histories of women in science written, you tend to get Marie Curie – always – and a couple of others. And they have to have done something amazing, and to have their name attached to that amazing thing. And, that is not always that practically possible, especially in the time periods we are looking at.

So Caroline Herschel is really unusual for her time. Caroline is William’s sister, John’s aunt. She is not typical. I mean, she is typical in some ways, she is reliant on the men in her family to provide her with a scientific education and to provide her with access to scientific research and to provide her with a means of getting her research known to other people. And she is also typical in the fact that she is always – and this is something that always seems to catch historians out – is that she is typical in being  incredibly self-deprecating. So, when you read it, she goes so over the top in her attempt to be lady-like. And she does occasionally let slip – there is a nice quote about her saying ‘You know, in a man it would be ambition, but in a woman it is vanity. But I am allowed to be a little bit vain, because I am ninety.’

JB: So, what did she actually do?

EW: See, I tend to focus on the things that stopped her doing more. But what she actually did was, she was William’s assistant. So when they took observations, he would look at the star, she would look at the time, and then she would record both those. Because that is what you need, those are your two points on the axis when you try to map all the stars. Which was what they were trying to do. They were trying to map all the double stars – all the things that were not just starts, basically. They were trying to map double stars, nebulae, and star clusters. And so, she did that. She also rearranged, so she rewrote an important catalogue, Flamsteed’s star catalogue, so that it was a more useful reference piece. And she corrected a lot of what she found in there as well.

She also discovered lots of comets. The exact number depends on how you view priority. Because, overall it was eight, but a couple of those she discovered at the same time as somebody else. So sometimes, they would have somebody else’s name attached to them. These are her real proper this-is-what-she-did achievements. But on top of that, a lot of what she did was take over all the things William did not want to do, thereby freeing up all of his time and allowing him to do the things that he did. So, although it is difficult to put a name on that, it is actually quite an important contribution to science.

JB: As might be expected, opportunities for girls were not the same as those for boys in the nineteenth century. But John and his wife Margaret were particularly keen to advance the education of their daughters, and science played an important part in this. The Herschels were perhaps ahead of their time, but they are good indicators of changing attitudes.

EW: The standard line is that education for girls in the nineteenth century was about making them decorative. So you would learn accomplishments because that would stop you getting bored you are idling around the house not doing anything. That was what it meant to be middle class, to aspire to do nothing at all. But, like so many things, it is slightly taken apart. So, they were treated differently. Maria Edgeworth has a nice bit about what a good subject science is to teach young children and also to girls. And her  argument for teaching it to girls is that accomplishments are there to stop girls getting bored when they are older. Science would do just the same job, but would also have your girl stand out in the marriage market. So John and Margaret’s children – they have a lot more girls than boys…  She is eighteen when she gets married and John already has this quite established circle of friends, many of which kind of intellectual women. So there are people like Maria Edgeworth, who writes , who is a novelist but also writes books on education. There is Maria Summerville who is an important woman of science. And then there is of course Caroline Herschel, whom she has heard of and who she is very impressed with. And she writes, she certainly writes to Caroline. She may ask these other women what do you have to do to get that level of expertise. And she is talking to Maria Edgeworth  asking her – she was talking about some argument between John Herschel and one of his friends and she says ‘How I wish you would have been here, because it is lovely to see them all floored by a woman.

‘In abundance of your charity play may come and infuse some of your clear-sighted and right-thinking metaphysics into Herschel and Mister Ewell, who just were in deep profound sentences on this subjects and sadly want some fresh ideas on cause and effect. My poor brains are quite addled with it. There is enough wickedness left in me to desire to the gentlemen floored by a woman. We claim, however you may be nearly aided in intellect, to the other sex.’

EW: So she is really impressed with these and she tries to give her girls a similar high level education to boys. Caroline says: ‘You know, you really ought to, you know, if you want to marry them off – you know, I was never married – if you want to marry them off, you really have to play down this, teach them to hide their attainment.’

JB: Was this attitude typical?

EW: They are, quite probably, quite ahead of their time. I mean, certainly when Constance goes to Cambridge, there is a couple of reasons why lots of people do not choose to send their daughters to Cambridge. And one of them is that they just would not pass the exams to get in. The other one is that it, kind of gives them unrealistic expectations for their adult life. You know, they will only be bored when they then have  to do the washing up.

JB: Starting with William, we have looked at several Herschels and at their individual and collective contribution to science. We are going to hear from Emily one more time to tell us what she has learned from studying three generations of the Herschel  family.

EW: One of the things that is quite interesting what they do as a family – I mean, individually they do this and discover that – but what they do as a family, I think, is promote as something interesting and fun. And so, when William discovers Uranus that is something that is quite tangible and easy to understand and they are written about in various magazines and they are colour supplements for the – to be anachronistic. But the same is true of later generations. John deliberately rejects the kind of super academic, sort of elitist career in science and chooses instead to write for encyclopaedias.

This has been a production for Pod Academy, produced by me Jo Barratt in conversation with Dr. Emily Winterburn. Thanks to English Heritage and the staff of Down House for their support. The property is open on the weekends and gives a fascinating insight into the life of Darwin and his family.

The music you can hear was composed by John Herschel and preformed by the London Mozart Players. And if you enjoyed this podcast, there are many more programmes focused on academic research available for free download in our Humanities and Social Sciences, Science and the Environment, Arts and Culture and Business and Economics faculties. Go to or join the debate on Twitter @podacademy.

Transcript by: Maarten van Schaik



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