Trailblazing Ulster stargazer who was denied a degree for being a woman

Annie Russell Maunder
Annie Russell Maunder

A pioneering female astronomer from Co Tyrone who helped further our understanding of the sun is to be remembered with a blue plaque on Monday.

Annie Russell Maunder, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, became an international expert on the science of the sun during the course of her remarkable life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

She was born at the Manse on the Derry Road in Strabane on April 14, 1868, to Rev Andrew Russell from Raphoe, the minister of 2nd Presbyterian Church in Strabane, and his second wife, Hessie Nesbitt Dill, herself the daughter of Rev John Dill of Carnmoney, Newtownabbey.

She was educated at home initially then sent to school in Strabane, and later at the Ladies Collegiate School in Belfast (now Victoria College).

She achieved a three-year scholarship to Girton College at Cambridge University, and in 1889, she qualified with an honours degree from Girton with a top place in mathematics. As a female student she was not, however, allowed to accept or receive her Bacherlor’s award.

From Cambridge she left for the island of Jersey to teach mathematics, but by 1891 she had left to take up a job with the Royal Greenwich Observatory in London as a “lady computer” (as her assistant’s role was known). Despite requiring skill and a bachelor’s degree, the job only paid a paltry £4 per month.

Her work at the observatory was to turn raw observations into usable data. She was trained to use a telescope, and to track movements of sunspots and photograph the sun.

During her time at the observatory, she discovered a great black spot on the sun which was linked to a magnetic storm.

Her work on sunsports is remembered in the term ‘Maunder Minimum’, a period of reduced sunspot activity in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In 1895 she married the head of the Solar Department at the Royal Observatory, Edward Walter Maunder.

Civil Service rules at the time meant the marriage brought about her resignation from her research post, but Annie Maunder continued to collaborate with Walter and in 1908 published the book ‘The Heavens and Their Story’.

Walter Maunder stated that “this book was almost wholly the work of my wife”.

The couple travelled on expeditions around the world to places as far apart as Lappland, Labrador, north Africa and Inida, and during their expeditions, Annie took valuable images of the corona during solar eclipses.

She lived until the age of 80 and died in Wandsworth in London in 1947. The blue plaque will be unveiled at 12 noon on Monday at Patrick Street, Strabane, Co Tyrone.