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“T]he human brain is greater yet, because it can comprehend it all.”
Maury speaking of the greatness of the Universe.


Antonia Maury, 
A Spectral Star

Antonia Caetana de Paiva Pereira Maury was born in Cold Spring, New York on March 21, 1866. Her father, Mytton Maury, was a protestant minister and her mother, Virginia Draper Maury, was Henry Draper’s sister. Maury graduated with honors from Vassar College in 1887 and was a student of Maria Mitchell.

Due to the endowment to Harvard College Observatory for the Henry Draper Catalogue project by her aunt Anna Draper, Maury was hired by Pickering as a computer in 1888. She was responsible for cataloguing and computing stellar spectra for stars in the northern hemisphere. Maury, however, was not satisfied to merely perform mundane calculations. She had an interest in theoretical work, an endeavor discouraged by Pickering in his computers. This created a strained relationship between Maury and Pickering, resulting in her intermittent employment during her years at Harvard College Observatory. “[S]he 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,” according to Dorrit Hoffleit, one of Maury’s colleagues at Harvard College Observatory.

During Maury’s cataloguing work, she rearranged Fleming’s scheme to reflect the temperatures of stars. She further refined the sequence by adding another “dimension” to describe the spectral lines. Maury’s scheme included “‘a’ for wide and well defined; ‘b’ for hazy but relatively wide and of same intensity as ‘a’; and ‘c’ for spectra in which the H lines and ‘Orion lines’ (now known to be due to helium) were narrow and sharply defined, whereas the calcium lines were more intense. She also had a class ‘ac’ for stars having characteristics of both ‘a’ and ‘c.’”

Maury firmly believed in her category scheme of stellar spectra and that the “‘c-characteristic’... represented a fundamental property of the stars.” Other astronomers agreed. In 1905, famed Danish astronomer Ejnar Hertzsprung published his work on stellar magnitudes and luminosities. “Hertzsprung discovered that the red stars appeared to be of two types, nearby stars or dwarfs and distant stars or giants. His “red giant” objects were the same stars Maury had catalogued with the “c-characteristic.” According to Hertzsprung, “In my opinion the separation of Antonia C. Maury of the c- and ac- stars is the most important advancement in stellar classification since the trials by Vogel and Secchi.”

Maury did not complete her work at Harvard College Observatory, leaving in 1891 to pursue a position at Gilman School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She returned in 1893 for one year, and again in December 1895 to assist with the final phase in the Draper project. The Henry Draper Catalogue was finally published in 1897.

After the completion of the catalogue, Maury continued her intermittent relationship at Harvard College Observatory. She also lectured on astronomy to professionals of the field, as well as public forums. During this time, she pursued her own interests in spectroscopic binaries. She co-discovered the first example of these objects, Mizar in Ursa Major, in 1899, as well as the second, Beta Aurigae. She was the first to calculate their orbits. Famed astronomer, “Colonel John Herschel called her work on spectroscopic binaries ‘one of the most notable advances in physical astronomy ever made.’”

Maury officially retired from Harvard College Observatory in 1935. For the next three years, she was in charge of the Draper Park Observatory Museum in Hastings-on-Hudson. Until her death on January 8, 1952, Maury continued to visit Harvard College Observatory “to check on observations of her final project, the enigmatic double Beta Lyrae.”

As with Fleming, Maury received recognition from astronomers worldwide. In a dedication in Dr. W. W. Morgan’s atlas of stellar spectra, Maury was described as “the single greatest mind that has ever engaged itself in the field of the morphology of stellar spectra.” Because of her ingenuity, determination, and perseverance, Maury is remembered for her contributions to stellar astrophysics.

Links on the Web

bullet Antonia Maury Biography - Encyclopedia of World Biography
bullet Antonia Maury - Wikipedia
bullet Antonia Maury - Women in Astronomy IV
bullet Antonia Caetana de Paiva Pereira Maury - Library of Congress, Women in Astronomy: a Comprehensive Bibliography

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Updated 17.10.2023
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