Women in Victorian Astronomy: celebrating Annie Maunder (1868-1947)

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Working in astronomy has always been a challenge for women but somehow they’ve managed to contribute in their own way, whether it’s observing directly themselves or recording and analysing data from other astronomers. Others contributed by writing popular books and developing education materials to share the subject with others. Their work has long been overshadowed by their male counterparts but in this blog I’d like to focus on one particular female astronomer who worked here at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, during the 1890s and whose story really encapsulates the struggles faced by women in astronomy at the time.

Portrait of Annie
Portrait of Annie. Courtesy of the Maunder family.

Annie’s education

Annie Scott Dill Russell (1868-1947) grew up in Strabane , Northern Ireland. She was initially educated at home before going to school in Belfast as a teenager. In 1886 she was offered and accepted an open scholarship to enrol at Girton College Cambridge to study the Mathematical Tripos. This college had specifically been set up in 1869 for the education of women but despite successfully completing the exams in 1889, Annie and her peers left Girton with no formal recognition as Cambridge did not award full degrees to women until nearly 60 years later in 1947.


Joining the Royal Observatory

After initially working as a mathematics teacher at a girls’ school in Jersey, Annie heard about the new opportunities at Greenwich through Alice Everett (1865-1949), a fellow Girton College graduate. The eighth Astronomer Royal, William Christie  (1845-1922) had started to offer women paid work as ‘computers’ in which they could analyse and correct the raw observational data into material that could be published and distributed to other astronomers. It was painstaking and tedious work that required good mathematical skills, patience and attention to detail but was rewarded with a pitiful salary. Although the pay was significantly less than her teaching job, Annie was keen to use her mathematical skills and she eventually joined the Observatory in September 1891.

Sir William Christie, eighth Astronomer Royal
Sir William Christie, eighth Astronomer Royal (NMM Image)


Annie’s role at Greenwich

Despite being called ‘computers’ the young women were not just restricted to purely mathematical tasks, they were also trained on how to use the telescopes. Annie was assigned to work in the Solar Department where she used a Dallmeyer photoheliograph, one of five specially-designed telescopes that were originally commissioned by the Observatory for use on expeditions to view the Transit of Venus in 1874 from various locations including Hawaii and Egypt. Annie carefully took daily photographs of the Sun to create a record of the changing size and position of sunspots; similar photographs were taken at observatories in Mumbai and Mauritius to fill in the gaps on cloudy days in Greenwich and create a complete record of the Sun’s activity.

A Dallmeyer photoheliograph (AST0968). The square section at the end held the photographic glass plates that recorded the Sun’s disc.
A Dallmeyer photoheliograph (AST0968). The square section at the end held the photographic glass plates that recorded the Sun’s disc. (NMM Image)


A dynamic partnership

After several years in the Solar Department, Anne’s life changed in December 1895 when she married her colleague and Head of the Solar Department, Edward Walter Maunder (1851-1928). According to rules and social conventions of the day, married women were not permitted to work and so Annie had to resign from her post shortly before her marriage. Undeterred, Annie continued to participate in astronomy in a voluntary capacity, particularly in relation to the British Astronomical Association (BAA) that was open to all, unlike the all-male preserve of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS). Annie and Walter went on eclipse expeditions to Norway, Algiers and Canada, often using telescopes and specially adapted cameras to capture details of the Sun’s atmosphere.

Portrait of Walter Maunder
Portrait of Walter Maunder (NMM Image)


Annie’s legacy

Back in London, the dynamic duo continued to work together on their sunspot data, compiling decades’ worth of observations to create the renowned ‘butterfly diagram’ that showed how the location of sunspots on the solar disk shifts from high latitudes towards the solar equator over the course of the 11-year solar cycle. This influential diagram continues to play a role today in helping us understand the nature of the Sun and its complex relationship with Earth.

Despite the lack of opportunities and recognition within professional astronomy, Annie made a name for herself as a public lecturer and writer of popular astronomy books. Although The Heavens and Their Story (1908) featured both husband and wife as authors, Walter proudly commented in the introduction that the book ‘is almost wholly the work of my wife’. After Walter’s death in 1928, Annie redirected her attention towards the history of ancient astronomy and became an expert on the origins of the constellations.

The artwork on Heavens clearly illustrates the Maunders’ association with the Royal Observatory
The artwork on Heavens clearly illustrates the Maunders’ association with the Royal Observatory


Blog piece written by Dr Louise Devoy, Senior Curator: Royal Observatory Greenwich, for Annie Maunder Day 2019.