In celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, we at Under the Microscope are profiling Irish astronomer and mathematician Annie Maunder, the first woman elected to the Royal Astronomical Society.
Born Annie Russell in 1868, Maunder was the daughter of a Presbyterian preacher. In 1886, she received a scholarship to study at Girton College at Cambridge University in England. While there, she was ranked as the senior optime, the highest mathematical honor available for women. Despite the award, she was not awarded a degree and left Girton College in 1889.
In 1891 she began working at the Greenwich Royal Observatory as a “lady computer.” Lady computers were successfully used at Harvard’s observatory, but previous to Maunder’s hiring, the “computers” moniker was reserved for teenage boys or women without college training. Being a “computer” was considered the lowest scientific post: the pay was poor and the work was generally considered tedious. Maunder’s job consisted of examining and measuring daily sunspot photographs, and through this work, she became an expert in solar astronomy. She also assisted E. Walter Maunder, another solar astronomer. Prior to meeting, E. Walter Maunder worked to include women in astronomical societies, and therefore his support of Maunder as a scientist was not unusual.
Ultimately, they married in 1895, and Annie Maunder was forced to resign from her position at Greenwich because of her marital status. She continued to work as an “amateur,” often assisting her husband without pay. Maunder created a catalogue of recurrent sunspots and developed an astronomical camera. The Maunders demonstrated a correlation between the number of sunspots and the climate on Earth. As early as 1905, they observed solar mass ejection, when isotope plasma, like solar wind, and magnetic fields rise above the solar corona or are released into space. They developed the “Maunder butterfly diagram,” which shows latitude of sunspots against time and is called “butterfly” because butterfly-like shapes appear across the graph. Their observations about the lack of sunspots between 1645 and 1715 was later coined the Maunder Minimum. They published The Heavens and Their Story. Often other astronomy couples had the man’s name come first on books, but because E. Walter Maunder believed the book was hers, Annie Maunder’s name appeared first.
Maunder was an active member of academic societies, including the British Astronomical Association, which her husband founded before meeting her. She was the first editor of the British Astronomical Association’s journal. She was invited to be the association’s president several times, but refused.
After her husband died in 1928, Maunder continued to work in astronomy, often with her colleague, Mary Evershed, who, like her, was a solar astronomer married to another solar astronomer. Maunder outlived her husband by nineteen years, and died in London in 1947. A crater on the Moon is named after her and her husband.