Monday, December 11, 2006

December 11: Annie Jump Cannon (1863-1941) and Matilda Ann Aston (1873-1947)

Two disability biographies today: this date marks the birthday of astronomer Annie Jump Cannon, born on this date in 1863, and of writer/educator Matilda Ann "Tilly" Aston, born on this date in 1873.

Annie Jump Cannon (portrait at right) was born in Dover, Delaware, where, as a girl, she learned the names of constellations from her mother. She enrolled at Wellesley to study physics and astronomy, but after her graduation in 1884, she went home for ten years to care for her dying mother. During that decade, she caught scarlet fever, and became deaf. (She used a hearing aid in later life.) Eventually, she returned to school, to do graduate work in astronomy at Radcliffe College. In 1896, she began working for Edward Pickering at the Harvard College Observatory, examining photographic plates. She started as one of Pickering's "computers"--women hired to do the tedious but crucial calculations of size and position of stars. She wasn't the only deaf woman working at the Observatory at the time; Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868-1921), head of the Department of Photographic Photometry, had a similar story of adult-onset deafness and a career studying the stars. (December 12 is the 85th anniversary of Leavitt's death.)

In 1911, Cannon became curator of astronomical photographs at the observatory, and editor of the Henry Draper Catalogue (which listed the spectral classes of 350,000 stars). In 1938, she was finally given an official Harvard appointment (she was 74 at the time). Cannon died in 1941, in Cambridge, and her papers are in the Harvard University Archives. An Annie J. Cannon Prize is given by the American Astronomical Society to a young woman astronomer. There are craters on the moon named for Annie Jump Cannon and Henrietta Swan Leavitt.

Matilda Ann "Tilly" Aston (portrait at left) was born at Carisbrook, Victoria, Australia, the youngest of eight children. She was born with low vision, and by age 7 was considered totally blind. She was sent to the Victorian Asylum and School for the Blind in 1882, where she learned braille. Aston studied briefly at the University of Melbourne (she's considered the first blind student enrolled at an Australian university), but she found too few braille texts to support her studies. So, in 1894, Aston founded the Victorian Association for Blind Writers (later Victorian Braille Library) and the Association for the Advancement of the Blind. Her first three books (Maiden Verses, The Woolinappers, and The Straight Goer) were published between 1901 and 1908. (She would publish eight books of verse in all.)

In 1913, Aston became head of the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind (an appointment that was mocked as "the blind teaching the blind"). She lobbied for free public transit, state pensions, and voting rights for blind Australians. She also edited, for many years, A Book of Opals, a Braille magazine that was sent to Chinese mission schools (there must be a journal article there), and corresponded with other Esperanto proponents around the world. The Memoirs of Tilly Aston: Australia's Blind Poet Author and Philanthropist (1946) appeared in print the year before her death from cancer. In the Kings Domain gardens in Melbourne, there is a Tilly Aston Bell--it rings if you run your hand across its Braille inscription. A few months ago, an audio interpretation feature was added, explaining the bell and Aston's life story.


Leila Monaghan said...

Nice bios!

Hmm...February is going to be busy, how about the 2nd week of March? send to monaghanIGNORE AT indianaIGNORE dot eduIGNORE (ignore the IGNORE's!). As I've started my own HIV/AIDS & Disability Blog, I can post it there or I can double post it here and there--which ever you think is better.

best, Leila

Penny L. Richards said...

You've got the second week of March, it's all yours. As to where you want to post or double post it, that's up to you--but I'll list it as happening at your blog, for now, because it lends the list of host blogs more variety.

Leila Monaghan said...

Cool, the blog address is:

and called HIV/AIDS. Deafness & Disabilities

Dave Hingsburger said...

Loved this post, we need to honour disability history and disability pioneers. A quick question, is the work 'disphobia' being used at all in the states? It has growing usage in the UK and in Canada as a replacement for ableism. I know it's appeared in Mouth magazine and in the TASH journal but don't know if it's caught on at all? Visit my disability blog if you'd like at

Anonymous said...

You should submit this post (and other deaf-related posts) to

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