The Phoenix of America

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Miguel Cabrera

All she wanted was to read, learn and write in peace without being dictated to by the misogynistic Mexican society. Juana Inés de la Cruz lived during Mexico’s colonial period when women were not allowed to attend university. Despite this, Juana educated herself through books and began writing her thoughts about love, feminism and religion. Yet, Juana could not avoid the advances of men who believed she should settle down and marry. She sought the safety of a nunnery, which allowed her to continue writing until her opinions upset (male) members of the clergy. This is the story of the first feminist in the Americas, the “Phoenix of America”, who rose from the ashes of “religious authoritarianism”.

Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana was born on 12th November 1648 in the village of San Miguel Nepantla near Mexico City. Although she had older sisters, Juana was an illegitimate child because her parents never married. Her father, a Spanish captain called Pedro Manuel de Asbaje, abandoned the family shortly after Juana’s birth. Her mother was a Criolla woman called Isabel Ramírez. The Corillo people were Latin Americans with Spanish ancestors, which gave them more authority in Colonial Mexico, which belonged to the Spanish Empire. Juana’s father was Spanish, and her maternal grandparents were Spanish, thus making her a Criolla.

Hacienda Panoaya in Amecameca, Mexico is where Sor Juana lived between 1651 and 1656

Despite the lack of care from her biological father, Juana grew up in relative comfort on her maternal grandfather’s Hacienda, the Spanish equivalent of an estate. Her favourite place was the Hacienda chapel, where Juana hid with books stolen from her grandfather’s library. Girls were forbidden to read for leisure, but this did not prevent Juana from learning to read and write. At the age of three, Juana followed her sister to school and quickly learned how to read Latin. Allegedly, by the age of 5, Juana understood enough mathematics to write accounts, and at 8, wrote her first poem.

By her teens, Juana knew enough to teach other children Latin and could also understand Nahuatl, an Aztec language spoken in central Mexico since the seventh century. It was unusual for those of Spanish descent to speak the native languages. The Spanish aimed to replace the Mexicano tongue with their Latin alphabet, so it was almost with defiance that Juana went out of her way to not only learn Nahuatl but compose poems in the language too.

Juana finished school at 16 but wished to continue her studies at university. Unfortunately, only men could receive higher education. Juana spoke to her mother about her aspirations, suggesting she could disguise herself as a man to attend the university in Mexico City. Despite her pleading, Juana’s mother refused to allow her daughter to attempt such a risky plan. Instead, Isabel sent Juana to the colonial viceroy’s court to work as a lady-in-waiting.

Antonio Sebastián Álvarez de Toledo

Under the guardianship of the viceroy’s wife, Leonor de Carreto (1616-73), Juana continued her studies in private. Yet, she could not keep her ambitions secret from her mistress, who informed the viceroy of Juana’s intelligence. Rather than reprimanding her, the viceroy Antonio Sebastián Álvarez de Toledo (1622-1715) took an interest in Juana’s education. Wishing to test Juana’s intellect, the viceroy arranged a meeting of several theologians, philosophers, and poets and invited them to question the young girl. The men quizzed Juana on many topics, including science and literature, and she managed to impress them with her answers. They also admired how Juana conducted herself, and she remained unphased by the difficult questions they threw at her.

News of the meeting spread throughout the viceregal court. No longer needing to hide her writing skills, Juana produced many poems and other writings that impressed all those who read them. Her literary accomplishments spread across the Kingdom of New Spain, which covered much of North America, northern parts of South America and several islands in the Pacific Ocean. Yet, female scholars and writers were an anomaly at the time, and rather than attract praise, Juana drew the attention of many suitors. After refusing many proposals of marriage, Juana felt desperate to escape from the domineering men. She wanted “to have no fixed occupation which might curtail [her] freedom to study.” The only safe place she could find where she could continue her work was the Monastery of St. Joseph, so she became a nun.

Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana

Juana spent over a year with the Discalced Carmelite nuns as a postulant, then moved to the monastery of the Hieronymite nuns in 1669, preferring their more relaxed rules. The San Jerónimo Convent, which became Juana’s home for the rest of her life, was established in 1585 by Isabel de Barrios. Only four nuns lived in the building at first, but they soon grew in number, becoming one of the first convents of nuns of the Saint Jerome order. They based their role in life on the biblical scholar Saint Jerome (342-420), who translated most of the Bible into Latin. Known for his religious teachings, Jerome favoured women and identified how a woman devoted to Jesus should live her life. During his lifetime, Jerome knew many women who had taken a vow of virginity. He advised them on the clothing they should wear, how to conduct themselves in public, and what and how they should eat and drink.

Sor Juana, by Juan de Miranda (circa 1680)

Despite taking on the title “Sor”, the Spanish equivalent of sister, Sor Juana’s main aim was to focus on her literary pursuits. Whilst she followed the ways of the Hieronymite nuns, she spent all her spare time writing. Juana’s previous employers, the Viceroy and Vicereine of New Spain became her patrons, helping her publish her work in colonial Mexico and Spain. Sor Juana also received support from the intellectual Don Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora (1645-1700), who shared her religious beliefs as well as her passion for literature. Sigüenza, who claimed, “There is no pen that can rise to the eminence … of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz,” also encouraged Juana to explore scientific topics.

Sor Juana dedicated some of her works, particularly her poems, to her patrons. Those written for Vicereine Leonor de Carreto often featured the name Laura, a codename assigned by Juana. Another patron, Marchioness Maria Luisa Manrique de Lara y Gonzaga (1649-1721) was “Lysi”. Juana also wrote a comic play called Los empeños de una casa (House of Desires) for Doña Maria Luisa and her husband in celebration of the birthday of their first child, José.

The first performance of Los empeños de una casa took place on 4th October 1683 and contains three songs in praise of Doña María Luisa Manrique: “Divine Lysi, Let Pass“, “Beautiful María” and “Tender Beautiful Flower Bud”. The protagonist, Doña Ana of Arellano, resembles the marchioness, who Sor Juana held in high regard. The play features two couples who are in love but cannot be together. Mistaken identities cause the characters much distress and the audience much hilarity. By the end of the final scene, everyone pairs up with the right partner, except one man who remains single as a punishment for causing the initial deception. In terms of theme and drama, Los empeños de una casa is a prime example of Mexican baroque theatre.

Another play by Sor Juana premiered on 11th February 1689 to mark the inauguration of the viceroyalty Gaspar de la Cerda y Mendoza (1653-97). Sor Juana based Love is but a Labyrinth on the Greek mythological story of Theseus and the Minotaur. Theseus, the king and founder of Athens, fights against the half-bull, half-human Minotaur to save the Cretan princess Ariadne. Although Theseus resembled the archetypal baroque hero, Sor Juana portrayed him as a humble man rather than proud.

Sor Juana also demonstrated Baroque literature in her poetry. Often full of philosophical ideas, Juana explored themes of the deceptiveness of appearances and female intelligence. In Hombres necios (Foolish Men), for example, the nun reveals the illogical behaviour of men towards women, treating them as objects of passion rather than human beings. In other poems, Juana wrote about the disillusionment of love and the pain it caused.

The first part of Sor Juana’s complete works, Madrid, 1689

Arguably, Sor Juana’s best poem is Primero sueño (First Dream), 975-lines about the torturous quest of the soul for knowledge. As night falls and the body sleeps, the soul separates from the body and dreams. The soul contemplates the world and the existence of everything from flowers to human life, taking into account all the details and mysteries of each object. Yet, it fails to grasp the overwhelming abundance of the universe, and the sun rises once more, forcing the soul back into the body.

Critics interpreted Primero sueño as Sor Juana’s dreams or thoughts, which were highly philosophical compared to the average person. She explored themes of Neoplatonism, the idea that the world is divided into hierarchies, and Scholasticism, which combined Christian theology with classical philosophy, particularly that of Aristotle (384-322 BC). The latter believed every living organism had more than one purpose or cause, which Aristotle split into ten categories: substance; quantity; quality; relatives; somewhere; sometime; being in a position; having; acting; and being acted upon. It is likely Sor Juana came across Aristotle’s Categories during her studies, either in her grandfather’s library or the San Jerónimo Convent.

Sor Juana’s writings, poems and plays covered many of her interests, such as religion, philosophy, mathematics and science. She also enjoyed music and studied the theory of instrumental tuning, on which she wrote a treatise. Sadly, this work is lost, but evidence suggests she wrote some of her poems, intending to set them to music.

The first part of Sor Juana’s complete works, Madrid, 1689

Not all of Sor Juana’s writings were intended for public consumption. In 1690, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz (1637-99), the Bishop of Puebla, published Sor Juana’s critique of a sermon by the Jesuit priest Father António Vieira (1608-97). Titled Carta Atenagórica (Athenagorical Letter or a letter “worthy of Athena’s wisdom”), Juana expressed her dislike of the colonial system and her belief that religious doctrines are the product of human interpretation. She criticised Father António Vieira for his dramatic and philosophical representation of theological topics. Most importantly, Juana called the priest out for his anti-feminist attitude.

Alongside Sor Juana’s critique, the Bishop of Puebla published a letter under the pseudonym Sor Filotea de la Cruz, in which he admonished the nun for her opinions. Ironically, the bishop agreed with many of Sor Juana’s thoughts, but he ended the letter by saying Sor Juana should concentrate on religious rather than secular studies. Whilst the critique focused on a religious sermon, Sor Juana included colonialism and politics in her argument, which the bishop felt were inappropriate topics for a woman, let alone a nun.

Carta Atenagórica

“Sor Filotea expresses the admiration she feels for Sor Juana, but at the same time reproaches her for exercising her talent in profane subjects instead of devotional literature. Although Sister Filotea does not declare herself against the education of women, she does express her dissatisfaction with the lack of obedience that some already educated women might demonstrate. Finally, she recommends Sor Juana to follow the example of other mystical writers who dedicated themselves to theological literature, such as Santa Teresa de Ávila or San Gregorio Nacianceno.”

Sor Juana responded to Sor Filotea, the Bishop of Puebla, in which she defended women’s rights to education and further study. Whilst she agreed that women should not neglect their duties, in her case her obedience to the Church and God, Juana pointed out that “One can perfectly well philosophise while cooking supper.” By this, she meant women could balance their education and everyday tasks. She jokingly followed this with the quip, “If Aristotle had cooked, much more would have been written.”

In her response, Sor Juana quoted the Spanish nun St Teresa of Ávila (1515-82) as well as St Jerome and St Paul to back up her argument that “human arts and sciences” are necessary to understand sacred theology. She suggested if women were elected to positions of authority, they could educate other women, thus alleviating a male tutor’s fears of being in intimate settings with female students.

The nun’s controversial response caused a lot of concern amongst high-ranking (male) officials who criticised her “waywardness”. They were angry with Sor Juana for challenging the patriarchal structure of the Catholic Church, and for claiming her writing was as good as historical and biblical texts. As a result, the San Jerónimo Convent forbade Juana from reading and sold her collection of over 4,000 books and scientific instruments for charity. With no one on her side, Sor Juana relented and agreed to renew her vows. The convent also required Juana to undergo penance, but rather than signing the penitential documents with her name, she wrote: “Yo, la Peor de Todas” (I, the worst of all women).

From 1693 onwards, Sor Juana focused solely on her religious orders. Never again did she pick up a pen to write or a book to read. Instead, Juana spent her time either in prayer or tending the sick, which led to fatal consequences. After nursing other nuns stricken during a plague, Sor Juana fell ill and passed away on 17th April 1695.

Before she was silenced, Sor Juana penned over 100 works, the majority of which went unpublished. Unfortunately, many were lost, and only a handful remain. Those that survived were compiled into an anthology. Several writers, including the Mexican poet and diplomat Octavio Paz (1914-98), have studied Juana’s life and writings, focusing on the difficulties women faced while trying to thrive in academic fields. Several scholars argue that Juana’s advocacy of intellectual authority is one of the first recorded instances of feminism. Some liken her to the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-54), although Juana was ahead of her time – a protofeminist.

Monument of Sor Juana in Chapultepec.

Although Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is almost an unknown entity in the non-Spanish speaking world, her work and reputation live on in Mexico, where she remains a national icon. Her former cloister is now the University of the Cloister of Sor Juana, which the Mexican government founded in 1979. During the renovations, builders discovered bones believed to belong to the nun. Due to a lack of ancestors, tests cannot be carried out on the bones to confirm the identity, but a medallion similar to the one depicted in portraits of Juana found in the same place is enough evidence for some.

Feminist movements of the past and present have adopted Sor Juana as a symbol, along with Frida Kahlo. Some also link both women to LGBT movements, although Sor Juana never disclosed her sexuality. Evidence suggests Sor Juana became a nun to avoid marriage, but others argue she was an “Indigenous lesbian”. As part of her penance, Juana cut her hair, which some interpret as an attempt to masculinise her appearance, likening it to Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940).

Statue of Sor Juana Inés in Madrid, Spain.

Sor Juana is also a religious symbol of Mexican identity, both in relation to Catholicism and Aztec beliefs. The latter is due to Juana’s choice to write some of her poems in the indigenous Nahuatl language. She also wrote a play, El Divino Narciso (Loa to Divine Narcissus), which features two Indigenous people named Occident and America, discussing their religious beliefs with two Spaniards, Religion and Zeal. Yet, her devotion to the Virgin Mary is evident in other work by Sor Juana, as is her decision to take her vows at the San Jerónimo Convent.

Juana Ines de la Cruz in art by Mexican artist Mauricio García Vega.

Sor Juana continued to inspire and influence people in Mexico and Spain in the 20th century. She appears as characters in literature, such as Yo-Yo Boing! by Puerto Rican author Giannina Braschi (b.1953), which debates the greatest women poets, including Sor Juana and Emily Dickinson (1830-86). In 1962, Telesistema Mexicano broadcast a mini-series based on Sor Juana’s life; and in 1990, the film Yo, la peor de todas (I, the Worst of All) premiered, based on Octavio Paz’s book about the Mexican nun.

In the 21st century, Sor Juana’s fame finally made its way into English speaking countries. In 2004, Canadian author Paul Anderson published a novel based on Sor Juana’s life called Hunger’s Brides, which won the Alberta Book Award the following year. In 2007, Margaret Atwood (b.1939) published a book of poems, including Sor Juana Works in the Garden. In the music world, American composer John Adams (b.1947) used two of Sor Juana’s poems in the libretto for the oratorio-opera El Niño (2000). In 2015, the Royal Shakespeare Company performed Helen Edmundson’s (b.1964) play The Heresy of Love as part of the Spanish Golden Age season. Finally, in 2017, Google honoured Sor Juana with a Google Doodle to mark her 366th birthday.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz has yet to earn her place among the greatest women in the world outside of Spanish speaking countries, but her ideas are gradually making their way into contemporary works. Sometimes referred to as the “The Tenth Muse” and “The Phoenix of America”, Sor Juana is an inspiration to everyone who faces adversity, particularly in terms of human rights and education. Fortunately, life for women has drastically improved since Sor Juana’s time, but the necessary changes only began 100 years ago. Sor Juana was not afraid to point out the inequalities in her society. Yet, with no one to back her up, there was nothing she could do to change things during her lifetime. If Sor Juana could see the world today, she would be pleased with our progress.


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The Queen of Science

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.

Mary Fairfax, Mrs William Somerville – Thomas Phillips

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.”

Mary Somerville as a Young Lady – John Jackson

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.

Self Portrait – Mary Somerville

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.

William Somerville c. 1840

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.

Mary Somerville – James Rannie Swinton

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.

Haliomma Echinaster, a marine phosphorescence.

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.

Google Doodle 2nd February 2020

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.


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The Lost Heroine of Astronomy

William Herschel (1738-1822) is remembered for the discovery of the planet Uranus. He discovered infrared radiation and became the first President of the Royal Astronomical Society. He is also the older brother of Caroline Herschel, the first female scientist to receive a salary, the first woman in England to hold a government position, and the discoverer of several comets. Yet, despite these achievements, Caroline is rarely mentioned in history books. Her brother was the more important of the siblings because he was a man. So, let’s rediscover this lost heroine of astronomy.

Caroline Lucretia Herschel was the eighth of ten children born on 16th March 1750 in Hanover, Germany, to oboist Issak Herschel and Anna Ilse Moritzen. Not all the children survived infancy, and those that did received a basic education at home. Issak made more effort to teach his sons than his two surviving daughters, who learned little more than reading and writing. Her father never thought Caroline would amount to much, particularly after she caught typhus at the age of ten. The illness stunted her growth, never growing taller than 4 feet 3 inches, and affected her eyesight.

Typhus put an end to Caroline’s regular education, and her mother did not expect her to find a husband. She insisted Caroline train as a house servant, although Issak continued to teach his daughter in secret. Following her father’s death in 1771, Caroline’s older brothers William and Alexander invited her to move with them to Bath in England, where they worked as musicians. They thought Caroline could work with them as a singer and perform in churches. It took some time to persuade their mother to let Caroline travel to England, but she eventually joined her brothers in August 1772.

As well as singing, Caroline looked after William’s household at 19 New King Street, Bath, which is now the location of the Herschel Museum of Astronomy. Caroline found it difficult to mix in society but soon gained the opportunity to continue her education. Caroline’s brothers taught her arithmetic and to play the harpsichord, as well as regular singing lessons. She became the lead singer at William’s oratorio concerts, although only agreed to perform if her brother conducted. She gained a reputation for her voice after singing a solo in Handel’s Messiah in 1778, but her reluctance to work with other conductors led to a decline in her singing career.

Alongside infrequent public performances, Caroline focused her attentions on looking after her brother’s home. William left his music career behind, choosing to focus on his passion for astronomy. Whilst William studied, Caroline did “what a well-trained puppy dog would have done, that is to say, […] what he commanded…” As time went on, Caroline grew interested in her brother’s work and shared his excitement for the stars. During the 1770s, William built several telescopes, grinding the lenses by himself rather than purchasing inferior ones. It was with one of these that William discovered the planet Uranus on 13th March 1781.

In 1782, Caroline and William agreed to a final musical performance, after which William accepted the position of court astronomer to King George III (1738-1820). They moved to a shabby cottage in the village of Datchet, from where William could be on hand for the king at Windsor Castle. Her brother wished Caroline to be his assistant, which involved spending hours polishing mirrors, positioning telescopes and recording William’s astronomical observations. Initially, Caroline hated this work but soon grew to enjoy it after William asked her to “mind the heavens” with a telescope for interesting objects.

Caroline started keeping a record book in which she noted all her observations. These she compared with the Messier catalogue, a list of 110 nebulae and faint star clusters compiled by French astronomer Charles Messier (1730-1817). On 26th February 1783, Caroline spotted a nebula that did not appear in the catalogue. After more observation, she discovered a dwarf elliptical galaxy, now known as Messier 110, orbiting the Andromeda Galaxy. Although the discovery was recorded in Caroline’s name, William did not want to miss out on future discoveries and took over the searching, relegating his sister to note and measurements taker.

Noting his sister’s disappointment, William constructed a telescope for Caroline to use, although he still required her to take notes. Every night, William shouted out his sightings, which required Caroline to quickly look them up in either the Messier catalogue or the Catalogus Britannicus. The latter was a 3,000-star catalogue compiled by the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed (1646-1719). Unfortunately, neither list suited the Herschel sibling’s work, so Caroline created her own catalogue.

On 1st August 1786, while her brother was away, Caroline borrowed William’s telescope to sweep the sky, where she spotted an unknown comet. Over the next eleven years, she discovered eight new comets, although only five appeared in the Royal Society’s journal Philosophical Transactions under her name. Caroline also observed a comet that the French astronomer Pierre Méchain (1744-1804) had spotted a decade before, yet the Society named it after the third person to detect it, Johann Franz Encke (1791-1865). Unlike Caroline and Méchain, the German astronomer calculated that the comet orbits the Earth once every 3.3 years. Thus, the comet is known as Encke’s Comet.

After Caroline spotted her first comet, William presented her to the royal family at Windsor Castle. For some time, Caroline was known as the first woman to discover a comet, although later evidence proves this incorrect. Maria Kirch (1670-1720) is officially the first woman to spot a comet, but this knowledge remained hidden for many years because her husband, Gottfried Kirch (1639-1710), claimed it under his name. Nonetheless, Caroline’s reputation grew, and she reported her second find directly to the Astronomer Royal, the Reverend Doctor Nevil Maskelyne (1732-1811).

Caroline became familiar with several well-known members of the Royal Society, including its president, Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), who rose to fame after accompanying Captain James Cook (1728-79) to Australia. Caroline announced the rest of her comet discoveries directly to Banks, including her eighth and final comet, which she observed on 6th August 1797 without the aid of a telescope. During this time, Caroline received an annual salary of £50 (equivalent to £6,400 in 2021) from the king, making her the first woman in England with an official government position. She was also the first paid woman in the field of astronomy.

Both Caroline and William continued to struggle to cross-reference their findings with Flamsteed’s catalogue, frequently resorting to Caroline’s previous notes instead. Other astronomers also faced similar difficulties, so William recommended his sister write a cross-index for all to use. The project, which took Caroline 20 months to complete, resulted in Catalogue of Stars, Taken from Mr. Flamsteed’s Observations Contained in the Second Volume of the Historia Coelestis, and Not Inserted in the British Catalogue, published by the Royal Society in 1798. This new catalogue included all the stars listed by Flamsteed and 560 new findings. Unfortunately, rules forbade women from writing scientific documents, so the catalogue appeared under William’s name.

The payment for the new catalogue supplemented Caroline’s income, affording her more independence. Her brother’s marriage in 1788 to a widow named Mary forced Caroline to move into external lodgings, but she still returned to the main house to work with her brother. Unfortunately, William denied her a copy of the key to his observatory and workroom, meaning she could never work alone. Caroline destroyed her journals from this period, so her true feelings are unknown, but biographers suggest Caroline felt bitter and jealous of William’s wife, the usurper of her position in the household. On the other hand, French geologist Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond (1741-1819), who befriended the siblings, claimed they worked well together. Caroline also looked after the house and observatory whenever William was away. Letters sent to and from Mary in later life also indicate a loving relationship, often writing fondly about her nephew John (1791-1871).

Although Caroline had restricted access to her brother’s observatory, she continued to make independent discoveries and contributed to many astronomical projects. In August 1799, Caroline received an invitation to spend a week in Greenwich as a guest of the Royal Family, which she readily accepted. Despite being a woman, Caroline’s fame grew, and many respected her as the true author of the Catalogue of Stars and discoverer of comets.

When William passed away in 1822 after a long illness, his grief-stricken sister returned to Hanover, Germany. Caroline later admitted she regretted leaving England, but she continued her astronomical studies from her new home. Using her brother’s notes, Caroline verified William’s work and produced another nebulae catalogue to aid her nephew John in his aspirations to follow in his father’s footsteps. Due to this work and the determination to write her memoirs, Caroline made no further original discoveries in the night sky. Nonetheless, she continued to attend events with other scientific luminaries and remained a respected astronomer.

In 1828, Caroline received the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society for her “recent reduction, to January, 1800, of the [2,500] Nebulæ discovered by her illustrious brother, which may be considered as the completion of a series of exertions probably unparalleled either in magnitude or importance in the annals of astronomical labour.” She was the first woman to receive such an honour and remained the only person of her sex until 1996 when Vera Rubin (1928-2016) received the medal for her work on galaxy rotation rates.

In 1835, the Royal Astronomical Society elected Caroline an Honorary Member. She shared the honour of the first female member with the Scottish scientist Mary Somerville (1780-1872). Three years later, Caroline achieved the same status at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. At the age of 96, Caroline also received recognition from Frederick William IV of Prussia (1795-1861). “In recognition of the valuable services rendered to Astronomy by you, as the fellow-worker of your immortal brother, Sir William Herschel, by discoveries, observations, and laborious calculations,” Caroline accepted another Gold Medal for Science.

“The eyes of her who is glorified here below turned to the starry heavens.” This is the inscription on Caroline Herschel’s gravestone in the cemetery of the Gartengemeinde, where she was buried after passing away peacefully on 9th January 1848, at the age of 97. Forty years later, the Austrian astronomer Johann Palisa (1848-1925) named a comet after Caroline’s middle name Lucretia, proving her reputation lived on after her death. Two of her independent discoveries also share her name, Caroline’s Cluster and Caroline’s Rose, as well as a crater on the moon. Yet after this, Caroline Herschel’s fame faded away until the second half of the 20th century.

Caroline Herschel reappeared in 1968 when feminist poet Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) penned Planetarium, subtitled, “Thinking of Caroline Herschel … astronomer, sister of William; and others.” One verse of the poem refers to “a woman ‘in the snow among the Clocks and instruments or measuring the ground with poles’ in her 98 years to discover 8 comets”, which presumably refers to Caroline’s work, although she passed away just short of her 98th birthday. Yet, Rich’s work is only loosely inspired by Caroline Herschel and does not highlight her achievements or reveal anything about her life.

During the 1970s, feminist artist Judy Chicago (b.1939) honoured Caroline with a table setting in The Dinner Party. This installation artwork, which is on display in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, New York, symbolises the work of 39 women throughout history. The artwork consists of tables in a triangle formation, each side representing a period of time. Caroline Herschel sits between Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) and the Native American woman Sacagawea (1788-1812) on the American to the Women’s Revolution side of the table. Another side represents women from prehistory to the Roman Empire, for instance, Boadicea and the Hindu goddess Kali. The third side seats women from the beginnings of Christianity to the Reformation, including Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), Hildegarde of Bingen (1098-1179) and Elizabeth I (1533-1603).

Each place setting in The Dinner Party features an embroidered cloth featuring the sitter’s name and images to represent their accomplishments. Upon this sits a napkin, cutlery, a goblet, and a decorated plate. Chicago painted an eye in the centre of Caroline Herschel’s plate to represent the astronomer looking through a telescope. The tablecloth features stars, clouds, sun and eight comets.

Whilst Judy Chicago recognised the talents and achievements of 39 women, including Caroline Herschel, the artwork does little more than introduce their names and hint at their career. To fully appreciate these forgotten women, people need to read, learn and talk about them to keep them alive. In Ancient Egypt, a soul never died whilst someone remained alive to speak its name. Although this belief is not a part of modern religions, the premise is the same. Without educating others about historical figures, they will metaphorically die, just like Herschel almost did before poets and artists like Rich and Chicago resurrected her. Fortunately, several books concerning Caroline Herschel have appeared during the 21st century, so her memory continues to live.

Last year, Argentina released several satellites named after women of science, including Caroline Herschel, and in 2016, Google remembered her 266th birthday with a “Google Doodle”. Other than this, little else has helped return Caroline to her former glory. Famous during her lifetime, Caroline’s achievements have since gone unnoticed. This is largely due to society’s attitudes towards women in the 18th and 19th century. Unable to publish her work under her own name, Caroline’s brother took the credit. Whilst this was not a problem at the time, because friends and acquaintances knew it was Caroline’s work, the people of the future wrongly assumed William Herschel made the discoveries. In the 21st century, it is time for women of the past to reclaim their achievements and receive the same respect as male figures.


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