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DIB Explorers: Annie S. D. Maunder, astronomer

16 July 2020

We continue our series of intrepid explorers with celebrated astronomer Annie Scott Dill Maunder who travelled the world observing and recording celestial phenomena and is known for her work on sunspot activity and solar eclipses.

Annie Scott Dill Maunder

by Enda Leaney and Patricia M. Byrne

Maunder, Annie Scott Dill Russell (1868–1947), astronomer, was born 14 April 1868 at the Manse, Strabane, Co. Tyrone, third child among two daughters and two sons of the Rev. William Andrew Russell (1824–99), presbyterian minister, and his second wife, Hester Nesbitt (née Dill). Russell had two sons from a previous marriage to Mary Dill Campbell. Education was important for the family, and among Annie's siblings were two doctors, a banker in Canada, and a headmaster in South Africa. Her elder half-brother, Samuel Russell, was a professor of astronomy and mathematics at Peking (Beijing), China. She was educated at home before entering the Ladies’ Collegiate School, Belfast. Having won a prize in the Irish intermediate examination (1886), she sat the open entrance scholarship examination for Girton College, Cambridge, and was awarded a scholarship of £35 a year for three years. The astronomer Alice Everett, from Belfast, entered Girton at the same time (1886) and the two women became good friends. Attaining honours in the mathematical tripos, Annie was ranked senior optime in the university class list. Although she passed the university examinations (1889), women were not allowed to receive degrees at that time. She spent a year as mathematics mistress at the Ladies’ High School, Jersey, before securing a position as a ‘lady computer’ at the Greenwich Royal Observatory (1891), after being told of a vacancy by Everett. Working in the solar department under Edward Walter Maunder (1851–1928) on the photoheliographic programme, her responsibilities involved photographing the sun, developing the photos, and examining them with a micrometer. Due primarily to her work on sunspot activity, she was proposed for the fellowship of the Royal Astronomical Society but was refused because of her gender. She became a prominent member (1892) of the newly established (1890) British Astronomical Association (BAA), which was open to members of the public, particularly women. Edward Maunder was the driving force behind the founding of the association and was a keen proponent of amateur astronomy. She was editor of its journal for lengthy periods (1894–6, 1917–30) and at one stage she was offered its presidency but declined, as she was afraid her voice would not carry in a large room.

In December 1895 she married Edward Maunder and resigned her post, in accordance with civil service regulations. Compelled to remain an amateur astronomer, she remained involved in research and continued collaborating with her husband. His position allowed her access to essential facilities and equipment, and during her lifetime she made important contributions to astronomy. Shortly after her marriage she received the Pfeiffer research student fellowship, established to upgrade the research potential of Girton, and used the money to make a photographic study of the Milky Way. She accompanied her husband on solar eclipse expeditions to Norway (1896), India (1898), Algiers (1900), and Mauritius (1901), where she photographed solar eclipse phenomena with great success, after developing a camera to her own specifications. In addition she made a significant contribution to solar astronomy through her research on the apparent motion of sunspots, published as ‘An apparent influence of the Earth on the numbers and areas of sun-spots in the cycle 1889–1901’ (Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, lxvii (1907), 451–75). The husband-and-wife team developed (1904) a chart showing the movement of sunspot emergence from the poles towards the solar equator over the sun's eleven-year activity cycle. It became known as ‘the butterfly diagram’, because it resembled flying butterflies. The discovery was momentous for its time, and an explanation of sunspot movement has not yet been fully developed.

She had a keen interest in the sacred scriptures and the history of ancient cosmologies, and co-published a popular scientific work, The heavens and their story (1908), with her husband, though it was principally her work. She contributed articles on the solar rotation period, planetary symbols, astronomy and zodiacs in ancient cultures, the canals of Mars, and the origin of the constellations to contemporary science journals such as the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Journal of the British Astronomical Association, Observatory, Journal of the Transactions of the Victoria InstituteChaldean, Scientia, and Knowledge between 1905 and 1935. In 1916 she returned to the solar department at Greenwich as a volunteer and was made a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society (the ban on female fellows had been lifted in 1915). After her husband's death (1928) she continued her work on astronomy. She died 15 September 1947 in London. She had no children with her husband but helped raise his three sons and two daughters from a previous marriage. A lunar impact crater has been named after her.

Sources: Mary Brück, ‘Alice Everett and Annie Russell Maunder: torch-bearing women astronomers’, Irish Astronomical Journal, xxi, nos. 3 and 4 (1994), 281–90; M. T. Brück and S. Grew (1996), ‘The family background of Annie S. D. Maunder (née Russell)’, Irish Astronomical Journal, xxiii, no. 1 (1996), 55–6; Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie, ‘Obligatory amateurs: Annie Maunder (1868–1947) and British women astronomers at the dawn of professional astronomy’, British Journal of the History of Science, xxxiii (2000), 67–84; (accessed 13 Mar. 2006)

Image: On the roof of the Hotel de la Régence, Algiers. Mrs. Walter Maunder (Annie Dill Scott Maunder) and her two cameras, by Miss Edith Maunder. ( Public domain)

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