Annie Jump Cannon doggedly pursued her passion for astronomy in the face of sexism, and helped change the field and our understanding of the universe in the process.
Born in Dover in 1863 during the Civil War, Cannon was the daughter of Wilson Lee Cannon, a prominent state lawmaker who opposed Delaware joining the rebellion. After her death in 1941—amid another major war—she was laid to rest near her parents in her hometown.
In her 78 years, Cannon had a remarkable career. Encyclopedia Britannica calls her work “an invaluable contribution to astronomy, bearing strongly on countless other problems and areas of research and exerting major influence on the evolution of the science of astronomy.”
She refined and simplified the system for classifying stars based on their light, developing a labeling system still in use today, with some modifications. She was one of a group of groundbreaking female astronomers at Harvard University who sorted through reams of data, and Cannon herself classified hundreds of thousands of stars. (In one month alone, she classified about 5,000.)
At the outset of her career in the 1800s, the words “woman” and “astronomer” were not synonymous in many people’s minds; by the time Cannon retired, she had secured a faculty position at Harvard, shifting perception along the way.
She was the first woman to earn an honorary doctorate from Oxford University, the first woman to be awarded the Henry Draper Medal from the National Academy of Sciences for her astronomy work and the first female officer in the American Astronomical Society. Today, she’s in the Delaware Women’s Hall of Fame and represents the First State on a dollar coin from the U.S. Mint.
Her legacy is equally felt in northern Delaware at the Mt. Cuba Astronomical Observatory, a research site established in 1958 by DuPont engineers, who, according to the observatory website, were inspired by Cannon’s work.
Her work opened up opportunities for future female astronomers. Resident astronomer Judi Provencal calls herself a stellar archaeologist because she studies white dwarf stars, or suns in the last stages of life. She says Cannon is “one of the reasons I’m here.”
At Harvard, Provencal says, “The male astronomers didn’t want to do the boring stuff of going through all the observations.” As a result, they accidentally gave the women a very important job.
Jane Rigby is a NASA astrophysicist from downstate who now works on the James Webb Space Telescope, an immensely powerful device that Cannon would no doubt have been thrilled to see. Astronomers often need to look up the star classifications to help prepare for this kind of work, Rigby says, and she frequently runs across stars first categorized by Cannon.
The classification system Cannon developed “was a really key step into understanding the life cycles of stars, how they live and die,” Rigby says, and emphasizes the dedication it took. “It’s demanding, exacting, careful work, done on a huge scale.”
There are more female astronomers now, but it’s still a field tilted toward men, Provencal notes. “When I first went to graduate school…my thesis advisor, I was his first female graduate student. And he said to me, ‘I don’t know how to treat you.’”
“It’s not new to have women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math),” Rigby says. “We’ve always been here.”
Now, Cannon’s work and that of her modern counterparts, like Provencal and Rigby, are helping even more women step out of the shadows and into the light, showing aspiring female astronomers that they have a place in the field.