Annie Jump Cannon (December 11, 1863 - April 13, 1941) was an American astronomer, and a pioneer in astronomical spectroscopy and stellar classification.
Cannon was born in Dover, Delaware, to Wilson Cannon and Mary Jump, the
former a ship-builder and state senator. Her mother triggered her interest
in astronomy by teaching her the constellations, and eventually the young woman completed her
Bachelor's degree in astronomy
at Wellesley College in 1884. She was later awarded a Master's at Wellesley
in 1907, and held honorary degrees from several institutions: The University
of Delaware, Wellesley, Mount Holyoke, Oglethorpe, the University of
Gronigen, and Oxford University. Cannon spent her entire career at the
Harvard Observatory, where she was officially the
Curator of Astronomical Photographs, and was named to an honorary academic
post shortly before her retirement.
Her most lasting achievement as an astronomer
was the massive Henry Draper Catalogue, published in installments between
1918 and 1924. The original catalogue itself consisted of over 225,000
objective prism spectra, classified by eye from photographic plates taken
both at Harvard and at an observatory in Peru. By the time of her death, she
had classified over half a million stars in this manner.
Cannon was also responsible for reordering the stellar classification scheme
to the now-familiar OBAFGKMRNS, adopted universally in 1922. She was also
active in the field of variable star research; she maintained the largest
archive of variable star data in the Western Hemisphere at that time, and
also discovered several hundred variable stars (including Harvard's 10,000th
in 1939). Though Cannon did the bulk of the work assembling the catalog, it was named for the deceased astronomer Henry Draper whose wife provided funds for the catalog.
Astronomy was a deeply personal endeavor for Cannon. As Harlow Shapley,
the former director of the Harvard Observatory, relates in his obituary of
Though rigorously scientific in her attitude toward her analyses of stellar
spectra and toward the surveying of the skies, nevertheless Miss Cannon had
a personal friendly interest in these remote gigantic gaseous spheres, which
came before her vision as images on photographic plates. She did not like to
have a star left out of her catalogue, with its spectrum, its temperature, its
composition unrecorded for man's study, just because the spectral image on her
photograph was defective, or was confused by neighboring stars. To such
objects, to such underprivileged stars, her natural sympathy seemed to go out,
with the result that more photographs were demanded, more efforts made to give
all a fair and equal treatment. She was indeed their faithful representative.
In addition to her scientific achievements, she was also a pioneer among women
in astronomy and science in general. She is counted among the ranks of other
great women in astronomy of her time, including Maria Mitchell and
Henrietta Swan Leavitt, and she helped to bring the
Harvard Astronomy department to international prominence. She was one of
(at the time) only four members of the American Philosophical Society, belonged
to the Royal Astronomical Society, and held the Draper Medal of the
National Academy of Science and the Ellen Richards Research Prize for
scientific research by women (a prize also won by Marie Curie).
Cannon's life was about the joy of learning, the joy of studying the
universe and sharing her knowledge with others. Again, from Shapley's
...from the cradle to the fourth score year, at every stage, she was
intensely interested in humanity; and without exception the individuals of
all stages responded to Miss Cannon's personality. A children's party at
Star Cottage, a Class Reunion at Wellesley, a meeting of the
International Astronomical Union, a dinner of the American Philosophical
Society -- all these found Miss Cannon alive with interest, and found her
making her unique contribution of vibrant personal charm.
The Annie Jump Cannon Award is given jointly by the American Astronomical
Society and the American Association of University Women to outstanding
female postdoctoral researchers in astronomy. The University of Delaware
also endows the Annie Jump Cannon Professorship of Physics.
Sources: Shapley's obituary of Annie Jump Cannon was taken from the
Yearbook of The American Philosophical Society, 1941. Additional
information was found in Kevin Krisciunas' Astronomical Centers of the
World, Cambridge, 1988, and at http://www.sdsc.edu/ScienceWomen/cannon.html.