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Thursday, March 21, 2013

March 21, 1866: Antonia Maury

Antonia Maury's 'photograph card' in her senior year at Vassar.

Antonia Caetana de Paiva Pereira Maury was born in Cold Spring, New York in 1866 to a Protestant minister and naturalist. Yet she was not born to humility: her family had a long history in the sciences. Her great-grandfather James Maury had taught three American presidents, her grandfather had made the first daguerreotype of the moon, and her uncle had been the first to photograph a star. 

Antonia was exposed early on to scientific inquiry, helping her uncle Henry Draper in his laboratory by the age of 4. By 1887, she had graduated with honors from Vassar College, where she studied physics, astronomy, and philosophy. After graduation, Antonia continued helping her uncle and his successors at Harvard in cataloging over 10,000 stars through spectral analysis. She was the "computer" behind their work: computing and cataloguing stellar spectra for stars in the northern hemisphere.

During her work, Antonia devised her own system of categorizing stars, but her efforts went unappreciated as her theories contradicted the role of her as simply a "computer." Her work as the first to calculate the orbits and periods of revolution for the first two spectroscopic binaries discovered also went largely unappreciated, receiving only slight mention in published works.

In 1897, Antonia published her work in Spectra of Bright Stars Photographed with the 11-inch Draper Telescope as part of the Henry Draper Memorial. Eventually, Danish astronomer Ejnar Hertzsprung and the International Astronomical Union recognized her work, modifying their classification systems based on Antonia’s work.

Antonia continued her work as an astronomer, teaching at Harvard and the Castle School in New York. She also delivered lectures on astronomy at other colleges, to professional groups, and to the general public. After retiring, Antonia became an advocate for saving the western Sequoia forests and worked as curator for the Draper Museum. Finally, in 1943, at the age of 77, Antonia received the Annie J. Cannon award of the American Astronomical Society. 

Antonia died in January of 1952. Though she waited until the end of her life to receive the recognition she deserved, she never accepted the labels that others placed upon her. Antonia continued pursuing her passions and questioning the universe around her, even when others tried to silence her or take credit for her work. She stood up for her findings, rejecting her role as simply a "computer" to become one of the most prominent astronomers of the early 20th century.

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