When researching women of science, Mary Somerville is a name that frequently crops up. Since past societies often wrote women out of history, Mary Somerville must have been a scientist of some significance to feature so often in biographies of other women (and men). Mary Somerville receives a mention in two of my recent blogs about female scientists (Ada Lovelace and Caroline Herschel), so it is about time I focused on Mary’s life and achievements.
Born on 26th December 1780 in Jedburgh, Scotland, Mary was the second of four surviving children to Vice-Admiral William George Fairfax (1739-1813) and Margaret Charters. Despite her father’s position, his pay was meagre, and Mary grew up in poverty in her childhood home at Burntisland, Fife. To earn some extra money, Mary’s mother grew and sold vegetables and fruit and kept a cow for milk. Mary’s father spent much of her early life at sea, leaving her mother to give her a rudimentary education by teaching her to read the Bible.
When Mary was ten years old, her father returned from his recent voyage and expressed his discontent with Mary’s lack of education. After scraping together as much money as possible, Fairfax sent his daughter to a boarding school in Musselburgh for a year, where she learnt English grammar and French.
Over the following year, Mary developed a fascination with shells and small sea creatures, which she found while spending hours on the beach. When at home, her mother expected Mary to help around the house, but she often retreated to her father’s library to read. As a result, her parents sent her to a local school to learn the more feminine art of needlework. Mary expressed her contempt in her memoirs, admitting she “was annoyed that my turn for reading was so much disapproved of, and thought it unjust that women should have been given a desire for knowledge if it were wrong to acquire it.”
Aware of her desire to learn, the headmaster of the village school paid home visits to Mary to teach her about geography. This came to an end after her 13th birthday when her mother sent Mary to writing school in Edinburgh, where she also studied arithmetic. In her spare time, Mary attempted to teach herself Latin, later seeking the help of her uncle, Rev. Dr Thomas Somerville (1741-1830). Mary also taught herself the Greek language and how to play the piano during school holidays and, instead of returning to the writing school, enrolled at an art school run by Alexander Nasmyth (1758-1840). Nasmyth also had an interest in astronomy and mechanical science, and he gladly became Mary’s tutor on the subjects.
In 1797, Mary’s father helped Admiral Adam Duncan (1731-1804) beat the Dutch at the Battle of Camperdown while serving on HMS Venerable. For this, Fairfax earned a knighthood and became Colonel of Marines. The family’s income significantly increased, and they joined Edinburgh socialites at many social events, where Mary earned the nickname “the Rose of Jedburgh”. When at home, Mary’s parents expected her to play the traditional role of a daughter, but when not in public, Mary focused on playing the piano, painting and studying algebra. Sadly, the family’s good fortune was marred by the death of Mary’s older brother Samuel, who died while serving in the East India Company’s military service, aged 21.
In 1804, Mary met a distant cousin, Captain Samuil Samuilovich Greig (1778-1807), a Russian Consul. The same year, Mary married Grieg, some claim by force and moved to London. In 1805, they welcomed a son, Woronzow (1805-65), named after a Russian diplomat. Their second son, George, soon followed, who Mary nursed while simultaneously trying to study science and mathematics. Grieg disliked his wife’s intellectual pursuits and actively tried to prevent her. The unhappy marriage came to an end in 1807 with the death of Grieg. Mary returned to Scotland with her sons, but sadly the infant George died the same year.
The money left by her late husband allowed Mary to pursue the intellectual interests that Greig had forbidden. She resumed her mathematical studies with the encouragement of the Church of Scotland minister and scientist John Playfair (1748-1819), who introduced her to William Wallace (1768-1843). Mary regularly wrote letters to Wallace, discussing her mathematical learnings, and he, in turn, suggested books to read. Gradually, Mary’s studies grew to include astronomy, chemistry, electricity, geography, magnetism and microscopy.
Mary practised her mathematical skills by solving problems posed in the journal of the Military College at Marlow, now known as Sandhurst. Several of her solutions featured in the Mathematical Repository under the pseudonym “A Lady”, but one particular result earned Mary a silver medal in 1811.
When not studying, Mary spent time with her family, who introduced her to people of note, including her cousin Dr William Somerville (1771-1860), the inspector of the Army Medical Board. Somerville actively encouraged Mary’s ambitions and helped her learn about physical science. In 1812, Mary married William Somerville, with whom she had four children: Margaret Farquhar (1813-23), Thomas (1814-15; died in infancy), Martha Charters (1815-79) and Mary Charlotte (1817-75).
Mary’s husband was elected to the Royal Society, which boosted their reputation in society, acquainting them with many writers and artists, including J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) and Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). In 1819, the Somerville’s moved to Hanover Square, London, so that Mary’s husband could accept the position of physician at Chelsea Hospital. Meanwhile, Mary began tutoring a friend’s daughter, Ada Lovelace (1815-52). At a scientific gathering, Mary met Charles Babbage (1791-1871), who was “making his Calculating-machines”. Mary later introduced Lovelace to Babbage, which sparked a significant professional relationship.
A German governess looked after Mary’s children, allowing her the freedom to mingle in society. She became well known by scientists and mathematicians, both in England and abroad. Together, the Somervilles travelled around Europe, meeting people of note, who often returned the visit. The only thing marring this idyllic lifestyle was the death of their eldest daughter Margaret in 1823.
In 1826, Mary published her first scientific paper, The magnetic properties of the violet rays of the solar spectrum, in the Royal Society’s journal. One reader, Sir David Brewster (1781-1868), declared she was “certainly the most extraordinary woman in Europe – a mathematician of the very first rank with all the gentleness of a woman.” Subsequently, Mary received a commission from Henry Peter Brougham, 1st Baron Brougham (1778-1868), to translate the Traité de mécanique céleste (“Treatise of celestial mechanics”) by Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK). Not only did Mary painstakingly translate the lengthy treatise from French to English, she embellished it with her knowledge about the mathematics behind the workings of the solar system, saying, “I translated Laplace’s work from algebra into common language.” This translation, published under the title The Mechanism of the Heavens in 1831, made Mary famous throughout the English speaking world. Cambridge University used the publication as a textbook until the 1880s.
Mary’s translation continued to garner praise over the next few years, particularly from “many men of science”. In 1834, Mary was elected an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy, the Bristol Philosophical Institution and the Société de Physique et d’Histoire Naturelle de Genève. She also received an annual £200 civil pension from the British Crown, although spent most of her time in Italy. Despite this, the Somervilles faced a financial crisis in 1835 as the needs of their children increased as they neared adulthood. Money made from Mary’s book and future publications often saved them from bankruptcy, although Mary always maintained she only wrote for pleasure. Mary’s second book, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, published in 1834, sold over 15,000 copies, making it one of the biggest selling science books of the 19th century. In a review of the book, the polymath Rev Dr William Whewell (1794-1866) coined the word “scientist”. Until then, the term “man of science” was the usual description, but this did not befit a woman.
Due to her love of astronomy, Mary joined in the discussions about a hypothetical planet on the other side of Uranus. She wrote of her predictions in later editions of Connexion, which were fulfilled in 1846 by the official discovery of Neptune. Two years later, Mary published her third book, Physical Geography, the first English textbook on the subject. Mary described the structure of planet earth, including land, mountains, volcanoes, oceans, rivers and lakes. She also discussed weather, temperature, plants, animals and prospects of the human race. Setting the book apart from modern publications is Mary’s Victorian view that humans are superior to all other life forms. Physical Geography sold more copies than her previous books and earned her the Victoria Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society. A decade later, she was elected to the American Geographical and Statistical Society.
Although Mary Somerville continued to study and join in mathematical and scientific discussions, it was not until 1869 that she published her fourth book. Molecular and Microscopic Science took ten years to complete and on several occasions Mary admitted she regretted the subject choice. “In writing this book I made a great mistake, and repent it. Mathematics are the natural bent of my mind. If I had devoted myself exclusively to that study, I might probably have written something useful, as a new era had begun in that science.” Nonetheless, the book proved successful and contained up-to-date information about atoms and molecules, plant life, and animals. It also contained 180 illustrations, which significantly increased the cost of the publication.
Shortly before the publication of her final book, the British MP John Stuart Mill (1806-73) asked Mary to be the first to sign a petition for female suffrage. Unfortunately, the petition was unsuccessful. In her autobiography, published posthumously from many letters to and from Mary, she declared, “British laws are adverse to women.” Throughout her life, Mary felt the effects of the male-dominated world, particularly in childhood when she could not study the same subjects as her brothers. Fortunately, she also saw positive changes, such as higher education establishments opening to women.
On 29th November 1872, Mary Somerville passed away aged 91 in Naples. Her husband predeceased her by 12 years, and Mary’s daughters helped to look after her for the remainder of her life. Mary was buried in the English Cemetery in Naples, and the following year, her letters and memoirs were published under the title Personal recollections, from early life to old age, of Mary Somerville. The book includes letters to and from family, friends and notable public people, including Ada Lovelace.
Mary Somerville lived on through her work and books, some of which universities continued to use until the 20th century. She has also been honoured several times over the past century and a half, including the naming of Somerville College at the University of Oxford in 1879, one of the first women’s colleges. Also named after the first person to be called a scientist is Somerville Square in her home town Burntisland, Somerville House boarding school in Australia, and Somerville Island in Canada.
Whilst it is true that many honours come after a person’s death, Mary Somerville received some during her lifetime. In 1835, when Mary was 55 years old, a ship named Mary Somerville set sail. Belonging to Taylor, Potter & Co., of Liverpool, the ship sailed to and from India and the West Indies carrying trading goods. The ship worked for 17 years until it disappeared after departing from Saint Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean on 18th October 1852. When she did not appear at her destination, she was presumed to have foundered, and all crew were believed dead. The ship may have nearly reached the British Isles because, on 11th January 1853, a chest belonging to the Mary Somerville washed up on Saint Michael’s Mount in Cornwall.
Mary’s legacy continued into the 20th century when an asteroid discovered on 21st September 1987 was named 5771 Somerville in her memory. This asteroid, the size of a minor planet, orbits the sun once every five years and seven months (2,029 days). The small Somerville crater on the eastern side of the moon also honours Mary Somerville.
Perhaps Mary Somerville’s greatest honour to date is becoming the face of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s £10 note. In February 2016, RBS held a public vote on Facebook to decide which Scottish figure should replace the nobleman Lord Ilay (1682-1761), who had appeared on the note since 1987. Wishing to change the material of the note from paper to polymer, RSB thought the public should have a say about the design. Voters had a choice between several notable people, including Mary Somerville, James Clerk Maxwell (1831-79) and Thomas Telford (1757-1834). The new note, featuring a young Mary Somerville on one side and a picture of two otters on the reverse became legal tender in Scotland on 4th October 2017.
On 2nd February 2020, Mary Somerville received her most recent honour with a Google Doodle. For 24 hours, a cartoon version of Mary sitting at a desk was the first thing people saw when visiting the Google website. Doodle designer Alyssa Winans commented that she admired Mary’s “voracious appetite for learning”. Winans hoped “this Doodle will shine a light on Mary Somerville’s contributions, and people will feel inspired to explore a broad range of interests.”
Like Winans, I hope this blog has shone a light on Mary Somerville’s contribution to science and mathematics. She wrote several successful books at a time when being a female writer was challenging. Mary Somerville was also a vocal advocate for equal rights, and it is thanks to her, or at least a reviewer of her books, that the gender-neutral term “scientist” came into the English language.