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Maury, Antonia (1866–1952)

Maury, Antonia (1866–1952)

American astronomer noted for her contributions to stellar spectral classification and the study of spectroscopic binaries . Pronunciation: MAW-ree. Born Antonia Caetana de Paiva Pereira Maury on March 21, 1866, in Cold Spring, New York; died on January 8, 1952, in Dobbs Ferry, New York; daughter of Mytton Maury (an Episcopal minister) and Virginia (Draper) Maury; sister of Carlotta Maury (1874–1938); Vassar College, B.S., astronomy, 1887; never married; no children.


Annie J. Cannon Prize, American Astronomical Society (1943).

Served intermittently as an assistant, Harvard College Observatory (1888–96, 1918–35); was a science teacher, Gilman School, Cambridge, Massachusetts (1891–94); worked as teacher and lecturer (1896–1918); was custodian, Draper Park Observatory Museum (1935–38).

Selected publications:

"Spectra of Bright Stars," in Annals of the Harvard College Observatory (1897); "The Spectral Changes of Beta Lyrae," in Annals of the Harvard College Observatory (1933).

The important role of women observers at the Harvard College Observatory from 1880 to 1930 has been the subject of numerous articles. The name Antonia Maury figures prominently in all such discussions, despite her intermittent relationship with the observatory.

Maury was born on March 21, 1866, in Cold Spring, New York, to Reverend Mytton Maury and Virginia Draper Maury . She and her sister Carlotta Maury (a well-known woman paleontologist) inherited a love of science from their grandfather Dr. John Draper and uncle Dr. Henry Draper, prominent physicians and pioneering amateur astrophotographers. Maury studied astronomy at Vassar College under Maria Mitchell , America's first woman astronomer, and graduated in 1887 with honors in astronomy, physics, and math. In 1888, Reverend Maury secured Antonia employment as an observer at Harvard, a post she held intermittently until 1935.

Antonia Maury became a central figure in the Henry Draper Catalogue project (funded by her aunt in honor of her husband Henry Draper) as a classifier of stellar spectra. Maury was assigned stars in the northern portion of the sky, while famed astronomer Annie Jump Cannon was assigned the southern half. During her work, Maury discovered that the traditional classification scheme of assigning letters of the alphabet to classes of differing spectral line strengths was inadequate to explain the complexity of the structure being seen. Maury introduced an additional "second dimension" to her classification method, a letter which described the appearance of the spectral lines: "a" for wide and well-defined, "b" for hazy but relatively wide and of same intensity as "a", and "c" for spectra with lines due to hydrogen and helium appearing narrow and sharply defined. Class "ac" represented stars with mixed characteristics.

Maury left Harvard for a teaching job and travel in 1891, suffering from burnout. Documented conflicts with director Edward C. Pickering were a factor as well. According to noted astronomer E. Dorrit Hoffleit (who knew Maury in her later years):

She was one of the most original thinkers of all the women Pickering employed; but instead of encouraging her attempts at interpreting observations, he was only irritated by her independence and departure from assigned and expected routine.

Maury returned to Harvard in 1893 and her catalogue of spectra, in which she described her "c-characteristic," was published in 1897. Pickering did not believe in the validity of Maury's system, and instead Annie Cannon's system (which did not discuss the appearance of the spectral lines) was accepted as the official method at Harvard, and later worldwide. However, Maury did have her champions. Noted astronomer Ejnar Hertzsprung explained in a 1905 paper that the stars which Maury had classified as "c" were in fact not ordinary stars but red giants. "In my opinion," he wrote, "the separation of Antonia C. Maury of the c- and ac-stars is the most important advancement in stellar classification since the trials of Vogel and Secchi." Hertzsprung wrote to Pickering questioning why Maury's work was not utilized in all Harvard catalogues. This work by Hertzspung, as well as work by Henry Norris Russell, form the basis of our understanding of stellar evolution. Maury had meanwhile left Harvard again in 1896 for teaching jobs and lecturing, and did not return to Harvard in earnest until after Pickering's death in 1919, when she turned her attention to spectroscopic binaries and enigmatic binary Beta Lyrae. Ironically, for this work she was appointed Pickering fellow for 1919–20. After retiring, she spent three years as custodian of her uncle's observatory museum in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, where she lived until her death. Antonia Maury was awarded the Annie J. Cannon Prize of the American Astronomical Society in 1943 and has a lunar crater named in her honor.


Hoffleit, Dorrit. "Antonia Maury," in Sky and Telescope. Vol. XI, no. 5. March 1952, p. 106.

——. Maria Mitchell's Famous Students; and Comets Over Nantucket. Cambridge, MA: AAVSO, 1983.

——. Women in the History of Variable Star Astronomy. Cambridge, MA: AAVSO, 1993.

Jones, Bessie Zaban, and Lyle Gifford Boyd. The Harvard College Observatory. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1971.

suggested reading:

Bailey, Solon. The History and Work of Harvard Observatory, 1839 to 1927. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1931.

Hoffleit, Dorrit. "The Discovery and Exploitation of Spectroscopic Parallaxes," in Popular Astronomy. Vol. LVIII, 1950, pp. 428–438, 483–501.

——. "The Evolution of the Henry Draper Memorial," in Vistas in Astronomy. Vol. XXXIV, 1991, pp. 107–162.

Kristine Larsen , Associate Professor of Astronomy and Physics, Central Connecticut State University, New Britain, Connecticut

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