Annie Jump Cannon was an American astronomer and physicist who made some of the biggest contributions in the field of astronomy that went on to lay the foundations of the subject as it is known in the present day. Cannon’s mother encouraged her to take an interest in astronomy and she went on to study physics. Cannon is credited with classifying more than half a million stars and her method of classification is still regarded as the standard as far as the classification of stars is concerned. It is often stated that she could identify a star simply by having a look at it and the books in which she published her finding are still regarded as the most authoritative book by trained astronomers. On the other hand, it is also important to point out that she worked in academia at a time when women weren’t encouraged to be in academics and her role in turning that theory on its head must also be lauded. She devoted her life to research and unwittingly broke down plenty of barriers, which is why it must be said that she left behind a rich legacy that is still celebrated in the scientific circles to this day.
Childhood & Early Life
Annie Jump Cannon was born to Wilson Cannon and Mary Jump on December 11, 1863 in Dover, Delaware. Her father was a state senator and also had a ship building business. Her mother Mary was his father’s second wife.
The family had three daughters and Cannon was the eldest among them; which is probably why her mother took a special interest in her. She encouraged Annie Jump Cannon to study the constellations and in fact insisted that she studied mathematics and astronomy when she grew up.
Annie Jump Cannon studied at the exclusive Wilmington Conference Academy located in her hometown of Dover and during her time at the school she excelled in the sciences especially in Mathematics.
Upon graduation, Annie Jump Cannon took admission in the prestigious Wellesley College located in Boston, Massachusetts, in the year 1880. Her subjects included physics, mathematics and astronomy. Additionally, the celebrated female physicist of the time Sarah Frances Whiting was one of her teachers.
Cannon graduated from Wellesley College in the year 1884 and was awarded a bachelor’s degree in physics. However, she went back to her hometown of Dover in Delaware since she could not find any viable career option.
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Following her graduation from Wellesley College, Cannon spent her time at home learning the intricacies of photography. When her mother passed away in 1894, she decided to get a job and was offered a teaching role in physics at her alma mater Wellesley by her former teacher Sarah Frances Whiting.
During her time as a teacher at the Wellesley College, Cannon further studied chemistry as well as astronomy at a post graduate level and later on took admission at Radcliffe College due to the better facilities on offer.
In 1896, the Harvard College Observatory hired her as an assistant. Cannon’s employment at the Harvard College Observatory was a part of the larger outreach planned by Harvard Observatory director Edward C. Pickering to involve women in his project of classifying stars.
In 1901, Cannon came up with a procedure of classifying the stars in different classes in accordance with the temperatures as well as spectral classifications.
Annie Jump Cannon’s work for the Harvard College Observatory rightly drew accolades and her work was widely appreciated and recognised. In 1911, William Fleming, the curator of the Observatory retired and Annie Jump Cannon became the new curator. She retired after holding the post for 29 years.
Annie Jump Cannon expanded on her research and published the Henry Draper Extension, which identified hundreds of thousands of other stars that would prove to be extremely important for further studies in astronomy. The book was published around 1924 and is considered a seminal work in astronomical research.
In 1938, Harvard University appointed Annie Jump Cannon as the William Cranch Bond Professor of Astronomy.
Annie Jump Cannon devoted herself to the field of astronomical research till her last days and during her life as an academic she came up with groundbreaking findings in her chosen field. As far as her greatest achievement is concerned; it is without doubt the fact that she came up with a standard procedure for classifying stars that continues to be used to this day.
Cannon was successful in identifying and classifying more than half a million stars in the galaxy. Her entire body of work in that regard has been documented in the volumes of the Henry Draper Extension and Henry Draper Catalogue.
Awards & Achievements
Annie Jump Cannon became the first woman to be awarded with an honorary doctorate degree from the famous University of Oxford. She was awarded the degree in 1925.
In 1931, she was awarded with Henry Draper Medal by the National Academy of Sciences.
A lunar crater ‘Cannon’ and an asteroid ‘1120 Cannonia’ is named after her
Personal Life & Legacy
Having suffered from Scarlet fever in her youth, Cannon had gone nearly deaf and that was the reason why she never married. She led a solitary life and gave her life to astronomical research.
Annie Jump Cannon died on April 13, 1941, Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the age of 77. She had established the Annie Jump Cannon Award for outstanding female astronomers in North America, eight years prior to her death and the award is given away to this day.