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Annie Russell Maunder (1868 - 1947):
Astronomer: Solar Scientist

Annie Russell Maunder

Annie Maunder was a respected figure in Astronomy of her day and a pioneer for women in a male-dominated field.

She was born Annie Scott Dill Russell in Strabane, Co Tyrone in 1868. Her father, the Rev William A Russell, was the minister of the Presbyterian Church in Strabane. Annie was educated at the Ladies’ Collegiate School in Belfast which later became Victoria College. She won a scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge and in 1889 gained honours in the mathematical tripos but was not awarded a degree as women were denied degrees until 1948. While at Girton she became friends with Alice Everett who on leaving in 1890 joined the Royal Greenwich Observatory in London. She encouraged Annie to do the same.

And so in 1891 Annie too joined the staff of the Royal Greenwich Observatory as a ‘lady computer’ and was assigned to the solar department at a salary of £4 per month, some £330 in 2017 value but the seemingly lowly position did give access to up-to-date research and equipment. Russell assisted Walter Maunder, the head of the department, in taking daily photographs of the Sun.

In 1895 Annie married Walter and had to resign her post due to the ban at that time on married women in the public service. Annie was 27 and Walter, a widower, was nearly 45 with a family of five children. In addition to her domestic duties, Annie edited the journal of the British Astronomical Association and assisted her husband on a voluntary basis.

In 1898 the Maunders went on a solar eclipse expedition to India. Annie photographed the solar corona with a camera of her own design and captured an image of a very long streamer. The couple took part in two further eclipse expeditions and Annie was regarded as an expert in eclipse photography.

The name Maunder is usually associated with the ‘butterfly diagram’, a depiction of the 11-year sunspot cycle which shows how the latitudes of sunspots change with each cycle. The Maunders were also interested in a period of 70 years from 1645 to 1715 in the middle of the Little Ice Age when the Sun was almost devoid of sunspots.  They showed that when sunspots are scarce there are few magnetic disturbances and auroral displays. The ‘Maunder Minimum’ is of particular interest in debates about climate change.

When the ban on women in the Royal Astronomical Society was finally lifted in 1915, Annie was one of the first to be made a Fellow, more than 20 years after her name was first put forward. Walter Maunder died in 1928 after a long illness. Annie survived her husband by nearly 20 years and died in London in 1947 in her 80th year.

The Maunders are jointly commemorated by a crater on the Moon. Also, in March 2022 English Heritage unveiled one of their blue plaques, dedicated to Walter and Annie Maunder, at 69 Tyrwhitt Road, Lewisham where the couple lived for several years until 1911. Walter Maunder’s name is followed by Annie’s though it is considered that the names may be in the wrong order given wide opinion that Annie’s achievements may well have preceded her husband’s in importance. 

In May 2018 the Ulster History Circle unveiled one of its coveted blue plaques, dedicated to Annie alone. The plaque is situated near her birthplace in Strabane.

Born: 14 April 1868
Died: 15 September 1947
Ian Elliott

Chris Spurr. Additional material: Richard Froggatt

Torch-Bearing Women Astronomers by M.T. Brück in Lab Coats and Lace – The lives and legacies of inspiring Irish women scientists and pioneers, edited by Mary Mulvihill, WITS, 2009;