Women's History Month - 20th Century Astronomers

Our final post for Women's History Month looks at two amazing women who were involved in the more recent history of the Royal Observatory Greenwich.

Not only did they both contribute to astronomy in Greenwich they also made amazing contributions to the advancement of science as a whole. One is the first female elected to the Royal Astronomical Society, the other quite possibly made the 'greatest astronomical discovery of the twentieth century'. Annie Russell Maunder (1868 - 1947)

Annie Maunder (centre) preparing to observe the 1900 eclipse in Algiers with the British Astronomical Association (from E. Walter Maunder (ed.), The Total Solar Eclipse of May 1900). AnnieMaunder (centre) preparing to observe the 1900 eclipse in Algiers with theBritish Astronomical Association (from E. Walter Maunder (ed.), The TotalSolar Eclipse of May 1900).


Born in Ireland, Annie won a scholarship in 1886 to study mathematics at Girton College, Cambridge. Though she graduated at the top of her class in 1889, she did not receive a B.A. - at the time these were only rewarded to men. In 1891, Annie was hired to work at the Royal Observatory as a 'lady computer', a position she held for five years despite a wage so low 'she could scarcely live on it'. She became the assistant to E. Walter Maunder, the Observatory First Assistant in charge of the Photographic and Spectroscopic Department. They collaborated in tracking the movements of sunspots: dark spots on the sun, visible without a telescope, created by intense magnetic activity. The couple married in 1895, and Annie resigned her post at the Observatory, but this did not dampen her passion for astronomical research. She continued to collaborate with Walter on eclipse expeditions and designed an astronomical camera which she used to photograph the Milky Way. The couple co-authored 'The Heavens and their Story' though she received the primary credit. In WWI Annie returned to the Royal Observatory to work as a volunteer and in 1916 she became one of the first female fellows of the Royal Society.   Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1943 - present day)

Jocelyn was encouraged to read voraciously from her childhood home in Ireland, and was one of the first girls at her college allowed to study science. She earned a B.Sc. in physics from the University of Glasgow and her Ph.D. from New Hall Cambridge in 1969. During her studies at Cambridge, she took part in building a radio telescope to study quasars. In 1967, whilst carrying out the tedious work of analysing transmissions picked up by the telescope, she detected regularly pulsing signals which turned out to be evidence of pulsars (short for pulsating radio star). In 1974 her Cambridge professor Antony Hewish was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for the discovery of pulsars. At the time, students were not normally included in the Prize; however she is universally acknowledged as the first person to detect signals from a pulsar.

Composite Optical/X-ray image of the Crab Nebula  NASA/HST/ASU/J. Hester et al. Composite Optical/X-ray image of the Crab NebulaNASA/HST/ASU/J. Hester et al.


Jocelyn has gone on to win many awards for her extensive research and has held many numerous positions, including President of the Institute of Physics and Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at Oxford. Until late 2009 she was a trustee of our group of museums here in Greenwich. The text within this blog was drawn from the booklet 'Women, Astronomy & Greenwich' written by Kelley Swain.