Annie Jump Cannon Biography

Astronomer, Scientist, Scientist(1863–1941)
Annie Jump Cannon was a pioneering astronomer responsible for the classification of hundreds of thousands of stars.


Born on December 11, 1863, in Dover, Delaware, Annie Jump Cannon studied physics and astronomy at Wellesley College and went on to work at Harvard Observatory. A trailblazer for women in science, she discovered hundreds of variable stars and devised a unique system of classification that became the universal standard, in which she listed hundreds of thousands of stars. Cannon died in Massachusetts in 1941.

Early Life

Annie Jump Cannon was born on December 11, 1863, in Dover, Delaware. Her father, Wilson Cannon, was a state senator, while her mother, Mary Jump, taught Annie the constellations at a young age and ignited her interest in the stars. Cannon attended Wellesley College, where she studied physics and astronomy. She graduated in 1884 and went on to focus on astronomy for two years at Radcliffe College.

Harvard Observatory Work

In 1896, Cannon was hired as an assistant to the staff at Harvard Observatory under E. C. Pickering. Her hourly rate was 50 cents. In her position, Cannon joined a group of female astronomers nicknamed "Pickering's Women." The team, which included Williamina P. S. Fleming, worked to document and empirically classify stars. Cannon's role in the large-scale project was to study bright southern hemisphere stars.

Creating a Spectral Classification System

As she began working, Cannon found the conventional systems of classification to be ineffective for her purposes. She combined two known models to create her own spectral division, the simplified classes O, B, A, F, G, K, M. The system was adopted as the universal standard and given the mnemonic device "Oh, Be A Fine Girl--Kiss Me!" which was utilized by astronomers for generations.

Cannon was known for her diligence and skill in addition to her enthusiasm and patience. She classified more than 225,000 stars, and her work was published in the Henry Draper Catalogue over the course of nine volumes between 1881 and 1924.

In 1911, Cannon became the curator of astronomical photographs at Harvard Observatory. She worked at astounding efficiency and was able to classify up to three stars a minute. In the 1920s, Cannon cataloged several hundred thousand stars to the 11th magnitude. She discovered 300 variable stars, in addition to 5 novae, a class of exploding stars.

Honors and Awards

Cannon received honorary degrees from the University of Delaware, Oglethorpe University and Mount Holyoke College. She was the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford in 1925. She received the Henry Draper Gold Metal of the National Academy of Sciences. Cannon was also the first woman to hold an officer position in the American Astronomical Society. The organization still awards the honor Cannon established, the Annie J. Cannon Award. The prize is given to a distinguished woman astronomer at the beginning of her career. Cannon retired in 1940. She died on April 13, 1941, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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