Annie Jump Cannon’s astronomy translated the dense skies into a scientific form, and her mere presence made the observatory halls most welcoming and accessible. She could not classify the stars without her colleagues’ help, but they were helpless without her energy and strategy. At the observatory for forty-five years, she became it — embodying its curiosity, generosity, and passion.
Many have written about Annie Cannon, and while no comprehensive biography yet exists, there is ample material in the archives and in popular memory to color her scientific achievements with warm hues of humanity and compassion. For this limited exhibit, where we are displaying Cannon’s tea set along with some photographs and objects of note from the observatory, a narrative tied to the objects seems most appropriate. This is by no means a complete account of Cannon’s life and work — just a sampling to spread the love.
In childhood, her parents provided an encouraging education, teaching her the constellations and the basics of photography. By the time she was off to college at Wellesley, she found it easy and enjoyable to study the details of astronomy. Her professor, Sarah Frances Whiting, had studied physics under HCO director Edward Pickering at MIT, and, reflecting in eulogy, Cannon confessed she felt inspired in the way Whiting had “pushed open the doors of opportunity” for many young women (Cannon 1927). Especially in astronomy, Whiting let no event pass under her student’s notice, rousing Cannon and her classmates in the early hours “morning after morning” to see the Great Comet of 1882 (ibid.). Unfortunately during her time at Wellesley, Cannon fell ill with the scarlet fever, and returned home after graduation to live a quiet life with friends and family.
Her diaries record this time as a happy period of giving, teaching, tutoring, and community work, but the untimely death of her mother impelled her to seek a more sustainable and expansive joy. She enrolled in an astronomy research program at Radcliffe in 1895, and, with her astronomical credentials (which included experience in telescope operation), and connections to Pickering through her old professor Whiting, Cannon secured a position as an assistant at the Harvard Observatory. Here, she began analyzing stellar light-curves by night, and by day she joined Williamina Fleming’s crew of computers to analyze spectra on the glass plate photographs taken in Cambridge and in Arequipa.
Cannon excelled at her task, less exerting her will-to-knowledge upon the stars and more listening to their language, “as if they had really acquired speech and were able to tell of their constitution and physical condition” (Cannon, Papers). She devised her stellar classification scheme — from which comes the painfully ubiquitous “Oh Be A Fine Girl/Guy, Kiss Me” — largely without an arsenal of astrophysical theory, grouping stars based on their visible and spectral characteristics rather than expected behavior. The scheme had begun alphabetically, but as data points added up and a whole picture of the sky emerged, Cannon felt no need to keep this arbitrary order, instead reordering the letters to match the progression of their given spectral lines. The astronomical community agreed with her classification scheme, and the International Astronomical Union adopted it in 1922.
Women were not always so well received in the scientific community at the turn of the century, and Cannon herself experienced more than one slight. Solely for her gender, Harvard president Abbott Lawrence Lowell refused to endorse Cannon as Curator of Astronomical Photographs, believing it somewhat “anomalous” for a woman to be named among so many men in the university registrar (Lowell to Pickering, 11 October 1911). (Williamina Fleming, Cannon’s predecessor in the role, had received the appointment from Harvard president Charles Eliot, whose administration was marginally more inclusive than Lowell’s. At any rate, Pickering appointed Cannon to the position and paid her an increased salary without Harvard’s endorsement, until she received an official appointment as “William Cranch Bond Astronomer” in 1938.)
With a similar slight, in 1923, Cannon was overlooked for election to the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC, but for more complicated reasons. Having suffered from scarlet fever during her youth, Cannon was largely deaf (though with the help of an “Acousticon” hearing aid, she kept an active life in theater and society). While some viewed the advantages of this ‘disability’ wherein Cannon could work better without distracting sounds, others adhered to a more discriminatory eugenics, including the leaders of the National Academy. Historian of the deaf Harry Lang records a correspondence series between Academy members discussing potential women to nominate for the 1923 election, and when Cannon’s work (“real and intelligent”) is considered, her person is discarded due to the risk and “undesirability of electing physical defectives” (quoted in Lang , 84). Despite these slights, standing at the intersection of gender and ability, Cannon continued working, demonstrating her resilience and the passion she held for her astronomy.
This passion overtook her colleagues, and, during her tenure, the observatory was an exciting production house, accessible to anyone astronomical. As the institution’s “adoptive mother hen,” according to Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Cannon made everyone at the observatory comfortable (and, sometimes, cookies). She was not alone in her deafness at the observatory — both Henrietta Leavitt (a colleague of Cannon’s) and Asaph Hall (an astronomer before her time) worked with impaired hearing. To facilitate discussion between all these scientists, Lang suggests that the infamous “Harlow Square” configuration of Phillips Hall — a round-table, hollow square arrangement, named for the director Harlow Shapley — allowed scientific discussions to happen visibly between many participants, possibly allowing Cannon and Leavitt to lipread their colleagues (Lang , 57). Never shy to tell her younger colleagues to speak up, Cannon sought an equitable work environment for maximum production.
And she maximized production. Canon classified over 358,000 stars over the course of her career. When she was in the flow, she could classify a star every 2-3 minutes, with the help of a staff of around five assistants doing most of the preparation and recording. Under her supervision as Curator of Astronomical Plates, the observatory published the Henry Draper Catalogue, in nine volumes between 1918-1924 classifying over 225,000 stars by spectra. With the final volume published in her 60th year, Cannon gave no thought to retirement, and immediately embarked on an ‘Extension’ to the Draper catalogue, a task Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin regarded as one of “heroic proportions” (Payne-Gaposchkin, 444). While Cannon focused on spectral work, she also assisted in identifying variable stars, novae, and other observations. In 1939, she identified the observatory’s 10,000th variable star (Jones and Boyd, 381).
She had begun her early career work on stellar spectra; her first opus, an analysis of spectral plates from Arequipa, Peru, was published in 1901, five years after she began, as part of volume 28 of the HCO Annals. She was finally able to see the southern stars for herself in 1922, when she spent the summer at Harvard’s Arequipa Observatory in Peru. Here, she manned the telescope and the camera, producing plates like she had studied for the past thirty years. “Under the tropical Peruvian sky,” she saw the stress of New England careerism melt away, replaced with a true depth and piety for cosmic work (Cannon, Papers).
Far from consumed in her work, however, Cannon’s starry life included all the pleasantries and hospitalities attendant to society’s most active participants. She frequented the women’s College Club in Boston, attended the theater, sung in the church choir, hosted friends and colleagues at her “Star Cottage” adjacent the observatory, and taught all the fresh hires the methods of work and styles of life at the observatory. Among the guests Cannon hosted at the observatory was Albert Einstein, who visited in 1935 to receive an honorary degree from Harvard. While Einstein may have been preoccupied by politics in Europe and the lacking (even damaging) response from Harvard and other American universities to the growing wave of Nazi censorship and authoritarianism, Cannon made the visit a pleasant, astronomical affair, enjoying tea around the observatory grounds with otherworldly conversation (Reisman 2007).
Cannon’s friendships were strong — she wrote long memorials for numerous friends, including Sarah Frances Whiting, Edward Pickering, Williamina Fleming, and Solon Bailey. In turn, no fewer than four different obituaries circulated in astronomical journals celebrating her life, penned by her observatory friends: Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Paul Merrill, Bart Bok, and Leon Campbell. Payne-Gaposchkin lamented that the observatory had lost more than a person, but an entire “institution” — of memory, of methods, of energy, and for the universe. Cannon’s legacy continues to inspire young scientists, from childhood curiosities through to established postdoctoral funding, with the annual Annie Jump Cannon Award in Astronomy issued by the American Astronomical Society to women whose doctoral work has made great impact on the field. But far from such monetary, scientific, or even humanitarian contributions to astronomy, Annie Cannon offered an exemplary life: work with love and happiness, and you might become the stars.
Papers of Annie Jump Cannon, 1863-1978. Harvard University Archives. HUGFP 125. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
Records of the Harvard College Observatory: Photographs, 1887-approximately 1930? and undated. Harvard University Archives. UAV 630.271. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
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