In her lifetime, Annie Jump Cannon identified more than 500,000 stars. This is without a doubt a remarkable feat for anyone, least of all a young deaf woman who spent her 19th century childhood with her head not just in the clouds—but in galaxies.
Annie’s mother fostered her interest in astronomy when she was a child, teaching her to identify the constellations and making certain she had plenty of books to read on the subject. But how did the little girl with her eyes to the sky go on to become the lauded “Census Taker of the Stars?”
When Annie received her bachelor’s degree in Physics from Wilmington Conference Academy in 1884 (today known as Wellesley College), the scientific community was still largely patriarchal. Regardless of her education and passion, Annie was still a woman, and as far as her contemporaries were concerned, she belonged in the kitchen, a belief they had no qualms about sharing with her.
What they didn’t realize was that Annie’s deafness–a condition she’d had since coming down with scarlet fever–allowed her to put the blinders on, put her head down and work with unparalleled focus. Once the scientists at the Harvard Observatory realized her natural affinity for the task of identifying stars, they agreed to allow her to come on as part of their team.
Identifying stars was an extremely tedious task, and one that Edward Pickering, famed astronomer at Harvard, didn’t want to have to undertake himself. So he hired a league of scientists to not only identify them, but develop a system for classifying them that could be taught to others. It was Annie Jump Cannon who developed the system that is still used today: classification by spectral class.