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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 Dr. Cannon,

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 obituary,

...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.

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