Annie Russell: A Flower from Sweet Strabane

In school, if you ever looked at images of the surface of the Sun you would have seen what appeared to be dark areas dotted across the surface. These anomalies are known as sunspots and appear dark because they are cooler than other parts of the Sun’s surface. Occasionally you would also have seen huge explosions which we call ‘solar flares.’ These flares are a sudden explosion of energy caused by tangling, crossing, or reorganizing of magnetic field lines near sunspots. This can cause a sudden explosion of energy called a solar flare. Solar flares release a lot of radiation into space. If a solar flare is very intense, the radiation it releases can interfere with our radio communications here on Earth. When charged particles from a CME reach areas near Earth, they can trigger intense lights in the sky, called auroras. When particularly strong, a CME can also interfere in power utility grids, which at their worst can cause electricity shortages and power outages. Solar flares and CMEs are the most powerful explosions in our solar system. I think many of us would agree that this is all very technical and if we are totally honest we would admit that we didn’t have a clue as to what it meant. It came across as a load of gobbledygook. From a scientific perspective, this information is vitally important to us here on Earth. We are aware of all of this information today because of the intellect, dedication, and foresight of an amazing Irish woman called Annie Russell.

Annie Russell was born on April 14, 1868 in The Manse, Strabane, County Tyrone, Ireland to William Andrew Russell and Hessy Nesbitt Russell (née Dill). Her father was the minister of the Presbyterian Church in Strabane until 1882. Her mother was the daughter of a minister at the same church. Annie was one of six children brought up in a devoutly Christian household with a "serious-minded upbringing."All of the children were talented, high-level academics. Her older sister, Hester Russell (later Smith), studied medicine under Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson at the London School of Medicine for Women. Hester qualified as the first exhibitioner in the final MB examination in 1891. Hester became a medical missionary in India and later married another medical missionary. Annie and her sister Hester pursued secondary education at the Ladies Collegiate School in Belfast, which later became Victoria College. Winning a prize in an 1886 intermediate school examination at the age of 18, Annie was able to sit the Girton open entrance scholarship examination and was awarded a three-year scholarship of £35 annually.

Annie studied at Cambridge University (Girton College), and in 1889 she passed the degree examinations with honours, as the top mathematician of her year at Girton. Here, she also ranked Senior Optime (equivalent to second class at other universities) in the university results list. Annie was the first woman from Ireland to receive this rank. Her mathematician tutor was a fellow of a men's college. He praised her for her ability to "throw herself  into her work with such success, in spite of being more than ordinarily handicapped, even for a woman, with insufficiency of preliminary training." However. the restrictions of the period did not allow her to receive the B.A. degree she would likely otherwise have earned.

She began working at the Astronomer Royal in 1891 and was assigned to work in the solar department under its chief (Edward) Walter Maunder, photographing the sun daily through a telescope, weather permitting; then developing the photographs and examining the images with a measuring micrometer. Sunspots were of particular interest to the department and Russell witnessed a giant spot in July 1892, and the resulting magnetic storm – a disturbance of the Earth’s magnetic field caused by material emanating from the sun in a manner not fully understood at the time – was recorded on the observatory’s instruments. She also learned about other departments’ work and made and published observations of eclipses of stars by the moon, and other phenomena. She joined the British Astronomical Association (BAA), and in 1894 was made editor of its journal, a role she carried out for 35 years.

On 28 December 1895, Russell married her boss, Walter Maunder, a widower, becoming stepmother to five children. She also resigned from her post, presumably because of the bar on married women working in public service at the time. She nevertheless continued to edit the BAA journal and go on eclipse expeditions, such as the one in India where a total eclipse was visible on 22 January 1898. One of Russell Maunder’s photos from that expedition showed a bright streamer reaching 10km into space (14 times the solar radius), and the longest extension of the corona then recorded by any observer. The photograph was widely published in accounts of the eclipse by Walter, but usually under his name. In August 1905, Russell Maunder took charge of corona photography on the Canadian government’s eclipse expedition to Labrador, the only time her expedition expenses were paid. Unfortunately, the weather was cloudy.

The Maunder name today is mostly associated in astronomy with the ‘butterfly diagram’, a graphical analysis that resembles butterflies of the 11-year sunspot cycle. Walter published the diagram in a paper in 1904, and it was generally attributed to him alone. It has taken 100 years for Russell Maunder’s part to become known through the efforts of Dr. Tom Bogdan of the High Altitude Observatory, Boulder, who had the original drawing restored and its history revealed in 2000. The Maunders were also interested in a 70-year calm period in the 17th century when sunspots were scarce, first identified by astronomer Gustav Spörer but known today as the ‘Maunder minimum.’ The Maunders confirmed that when sunspots are scarce, there are also few if any magnetic disturbances and auroral displays (‘northern lights.’)

They also discovered that magnetic storms on Earth recur in 27-day cycles and published a book, ‘The Heavens and their Story’ in 1910, with Annie’s name appearing as the first author on the title page. In 1915, the ban on women in the Royal Astronomical Society was finally lifted, and Russell Maunder was made a fellow, more than 20 years after her name had first been put forward. After Walter died in 1928, Russell Maunder continued to devote herself to the BAA’s work and to historical research. She died on 15 September 1947, aged 80.

Today, Annie Russell and Walter Maunder are individually commemorated by having craters on the moon named after them.

Many thanks to Wikipedia for some of the info used in this article.

If you found this article informative, please feel free to Share.

© John A. Brennan 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Views: 703

Tags: Astronomy, History of Ireland, Science

Comment by Rosemary Hayes on June 27, 2021 at 7:04pm

It’s a remarkable story about a very clever woman having such opportunities to contribute in the area of science.i certainly will pass this on .

Thanks so much.

Rosie  Hayes 


Comment by John Anthony Brennan on June 28, 2021 at 3:05pm

Thanks Rosie, glad you enjoyed it.,


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