The wife of a pioneering astronomical photographer Henry Draper, Mary Anna Palmer Draper collaborated with her husband throughout their marriage. After his death, Palmer endowed the Harvard College Observatory, enabling their work to be carried on by a new generation of astronomers.
Born in Stonington, Connecticut, in 1839, Draper was the daughter of Mary Ann (Suydam) and Courtlandt Palmer. Little is known of her early life, prior to her 1867 marriage to Henry Draper. However her father, a merchant and real estate investor, left his daughter and three sons a large fortune at his death in 1874.
Henry Draper was a physician and professor of chemistry and physiology at the University of the City of New York (later New York University). He also was an early experimental photographer and an amateur astronomer. He stimulated his wife's interest in astronomy and they became collaborators. At the time of their marriage, Draper was constructing a large telescope at his observatory at Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, near their summer home in Dobbs Ferry. Here, the Drapers made the first photographs of the spectrum of a star, showing the unique pattern of bands and lines created when the light from a star is passed through a prism. For the next fifteen years, Draper assisted her husband in all of his observations, photography, and laboratory work. In 1878 they traveled to Rawlins, Wyoming, to observe a solar eclipse.
The Drapers spent their winters in New York City, where they maintained a laboratory connected to their Madison Avenue home and where Anna Draper housed her extensive collection of archeological artifacts. Intelligent and talented, she presided over New York scientific society.
Following her husband's death in 1882, Draper abandoned the idea of continuing her astronomical research. However after visiting the Harvard College Observatory, where astronomers were building on the Drapers' pioneering photography of star spectra, she donated some of her husband's astronomical instruments to the Observatory and endowed the Henry Draper Memorial to continue the research. This grant enabled the Observatory to undertake a massive program that supported the work of many women. Among these women astronomers were Williamina Fleming, Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Leavitt, and Draper's niece, Antonia Maury. Draper visited the observatory regularly, following the detailed progress of the research and personally examining the star spectra.
Draper also endowed the Henry Draper Medal of the National Academy of Sciences, to be awarded for original research in astronomical physics, and she was instrumental in the establishment of the Mount Wilson Observatory in California. She turned her laboratory into a scientific lecture and exhibition hall and continued to be at the center of scientific events until her death of pneumonia in 1914.
- Wright, Helen. " Mary Anna Palmer Draper." In Notable American Women 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Edited by Edward T. James, Janet Wilson James, and Paul W. Boyer. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.
- Cannon, Annie J. "Mrs. Henry Draper." Science 41 (1915): 380-82.