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 Enchantress of Number

Contemporary computers have a history that dates back five millennia to the abacus. Great minds, such as the Greek mathematician Archimedes (c.287-212 BC), developed theories that led to modern calculus and, eventually, to the invention of the computer. The devices we are familiar with today emerged during the 20th century, but the first “computer programmer” lived a century earlier. Not only does that surprise many, but the gender of this programmer also raises eyebrows. Augusta Ada King, the Countess of Lovelace, or “The Enchantress of Number”, as the polymath Charles Babbage (1791-1871) called her, went against social norms to study mathematics and receive the accolade of the first computer programmer.

Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, circa 1840,

Generally, but incorrectly, known as Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer is gradually earning recognition in the 21st century. In 2009, the non-profit organisation The Ada Initiative marked the second Tuesday of October as the annual Ada Lovelace Day. The goal of this event is to “raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering, and maths,” particularly those written out of history. Whilst their achievements are significant, it is also important to learn about their lives and the obstacles they overcame as women to fulfil their ambitions.

The Honorable Augusta Ada Byron was born on 10th December 1815 in London to Lord and Lady Byron. Lord George Gordon Byron (1788-1824), the renowned poet and politician, expected a “glorious boy” and did not hide his disappointment when Lady Byron gave birth to a girl. He named his daughter after his sister Augusta Leigh (1783-1851), but insisted on calling her by her middle name Ada. Just over a month after the birth, Lord Byron commanded his wife to leave and set about organising a legal separation.

Ada Byron, aged four

Happy to escape from her immoral husband, Lady Anne Isabella Noel Byron (1792-1860), moved to her parents home in Leicestershire with her 5-week old daughter. She refused to let Byron see his child, not that he protested, and Ada never knew her father. Although Ada lived with her mother, she did not have a loving relationship and spent the majority of her childhood in the care of her grandmother, Lady Judith Milbanke. When in public, Lady Byron acted like the perfect mother, but in private, she did not even mention Ada’s name. In a letter to her mother, Lady Byron wrote, “I talk to it for your satisfaction, not my own, and shall be very glad when you have it under your own.”

Ada was a sickly child, often confined to her bed due to migraine-like headaches. At 14, she contracted measles, which paralysed her legs. In the year that followed, Ada spent her time in bed but kept herself amused by reading about and practising mathematics. Although usually reserved for male students, Ada’s mother insisted she receive lessons in maths and science. Lady Byron feared her daughter becoming an “insane” poet like her ex-husband.

During one of her long bouts of illness, Ada dreamed of flying. Using both her imagination and logic, Ada studied the anatomy of birds, analysing the right proportions between wings and body. She even went as far as to consider suitable materials and wrote about her experiments in a book called Flyology. Ada also envisioned a winged flying machine containing a steam engine for power. Little did she know that 76 years later, the Wright Brothers would take their first flight in a similar construction.

Ada Byron, aged seventeen

At 16, Ada regained the use of her legs, although she relied on crutches for some time. Evidence suggests she was fully mobile by the age of 18 when she attempted to elope with a male tutor. Since Lady Byron covered up the scandal, the name of the tutor is unknown. Ada had many tutors for mathematics and science, including the English clergyman William Frend (1757-1841) and British physician William King (1786-1865). Augustus De Morgan (1806-71), a mathematician and logician, encouraged Ada’s passion for numbers and noted she had the potential to become “an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence.”

Ada’s favourite tutor was Mary Somerville (1780-1872), the Scottish researcher and scientific author, who introduced her to many notable people, including Charles Babbage, Michael Faraday (1791-1867) and Charles Dickens (1812-70). She also met lots of people at Court after she was presented at the age of 17, where she met her future husband Lord William King-Noel, 8th Baron King (1805-93).

Intrigued by Ada’s mathematical prowess, Babbage invited her to view the prototype of his Difference Engine: a type of calculating machine that is described today as the first computer. Fascinated by his work, Ada persuaded Somerville to take her to visit Babbage as often as possible. Ada liked to watch Babbage work while taking notes but soon started to voice suggestions.

Portrait of Ada by British painter Margaret Sarah Carpenter (1836)

Meanwhile, Ada’s social life continued at Court, where she attended many functions and events. Enamoured by her brilliant mind, men considered her “a popular belle of the season”. She caught the eye of the 8th Baron King, whom she married on 8th July 1835, thus becoming Lady King. They honeymooned in Somerset and ten months later welcomed a son, Byron (1836-62). The following year, Ada gave birth to a daughter, Anne Isabella (1837-1917), but became unwell with “a tedious and suffering illness, which took months to cure.” Her third child, Ralph Gordon (1839-1906), was born on 2nd July 1839.

In 1838, Ada learned she was a descendant of the Barons Lovelace, of Hurley in the County of Berks, the last of whom passed away in 1736. The Peerage of England decided to revive the title, making Ada’s husband the Earl of Lovelace and Ada the Countess of Lovelace. It is due to this title that Ada is often mistakenly referred to as Ada Lovelace.

After the birth of her youngest child, Ada returned to working with Babbage. In 1842, the English scientist Charles Wheatstone (1802-75) commissioned the countess to translate an academic paper from French into English. This was a transcript of Babbage’s talk at the University of Turin written by Luigi Menabrea (1809-96), the future Prime Minister of Italy. The papers introduced Babbage’s proposal for another machine, the Analytical Engine, which he described as a simpler version of the Difference Engine.

Lovelace’s diagram from “note G”, the first published computer algorithm

As well as transcribing Menabrea’s transcript, Ada added notes to the article. She explained what made the hypothetical Analytical Engine different from the Difference Engine and demonstrated how the machine could calculate a series of Bernoulli numbers. These numbers are the result of a complicated formula that only the elitist mathematical brains could fathom. After writing both an explanation and a demonstration of the Analytical Engine’s potential output, Ada’s notes were three times longer than the original article. Although the Analytical Engine has never been built, Ada’s work is regarded as the world’s first published computer programme.

Ada also argued that “The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis, but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths.” In other words, a machine or computer can only work with the input provided by its maker and cannot surpass the knowledge or intelligence of the collective human race. This idea computer scientists continue to debate today during their strive to develop Artificial Intelligence.

As well as numbers, Ada believed the Analytical Engine had the potential to “act upon other things besides number”, for instance, music. Babbage’s machines only used numbers, but Ada believed these digits could represent other entities, such as music tones and letters. The Analytical Engine was never constructed, although British software engineer John Graham-Cumming is determined to build it, so Ada’s theory has not been tested. Yet, 100 years after Ada expressed the idea, computer scientists developed the modern computer using a similar approach.

Despite being a woman, many mathematicians respected Ada, particularly Michael Faraday, who described himself as a supporter of Ada’s work. Unfortunately, science journals published Sketch of the Analytical Engine containing Ada’s translations and appendices under her initials rather than her full name. For decades after her death, the initials hid Ada’s true identity, and many assumed the mathematician was a man.

Painting of Lovelace seated at a piano, by Henry Phillips (1852)

In 1852, Ada was diagnosed with uterine cancer, with which she suffered in agony for several months. During this time, her mother forbade visits from friends, including Babbage, and encouraged her daughter to turn to religion. On 30th August, Ada confessed something to her husband, which upset him enough to abandon her bedside for the remainder of her life. To date, no one knows what Ada said to cause such a reaction. She eventually passed away on 27th November 1852 at the age of 36. As per her final strange request, she was laid to rest next to her father, a man she never met, at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire.

After her death, people remembered Ada more for a series of scandals rather than her mathematical genius. During the 1840s, several rumours of extra-marital affairs surrounded Ada, but more scandalous was her love of gambling. After forming a syndicate with her (male) friends, Ada lost more than £3,000 by betting on horse races. In 1851, she attempted to create a mathematical formula to guarantee successful bets but failed and lost thousands of pounds.

Rumours of Ada’s romantic affairs resurfaced after the reading of her will. Rather than leaving the Byron family heirlooms to her children, she left them to John Crosse, the son of British scientist Andrew Crosse (1784-1855). Most correspondences between Ada and John were destroyed after her death, so the truth of their relationship will never come to light.

Ada’s eldest son Byron became the 12th Baron Wentworth after his grandmother’s death in 1860. Unfortunately, he did not have long to enjoy it before his sudden death two years later, aged 26. The barony passed to Ada’s youngest child, Ralph, who also became the 2nd Earl of Lovelace after his father’s death in 1893. Ralph avoided public life as much as possible and spent his 22nd year in Iceland learning about Icelandic and Norse literature. He also enjoyed mountain climbing and became an accomplished linguist. Rather than becoming a mathematician like his mother, Ralph preferred to write and, shortly before his death, published Astarte: A Fragment of Truth concerning George Gordon Byron, first Lord Byron, which divulged his grandfather’s incestuous nature.

Lady Anne Blunt, in Bedouin dress, and her favourite riding mare, Kasida 1900

Lady Anne Blunt, Ada’s middle child, married the poet Wilfrid Blunt (1840-1922), with whom she co-founded the horse breeding firm Crabbet Arabian Stud. She travelled extensively around the Middle East purchasing Arabian horses, many of which she brought home to England despite her husband’s protests that the horses preferred warmer climates. After Anne’s death, her only child, Judith Blunt-Lytton (1873-1957), continued the horse breeding business. A descendant, John Lytton (b.1950), is currently a crossbencher in the House of Lords.

Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, did not regain her reputation as an extraordinary mathematician and computer programmer until the 1970s with the production of Childe Byron by playwright Romulus Linney (1930-2011). Unfortunately, this play focused more on the non-existent relationship between Ada and Lord Byron than on her career. Ada’s mathematical genius came to the fore in William Gibson (b.1948) and Bruce Sterling’s (b.1954) 1990 steampunk novel The Difference Engine, and in the 1997 film Conceiving Ada. Other plays and books include Ada and the EngineThe Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, and The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency. The Countess of Lovelace also appeared as a character in an episode of Doctor Who in 2020.

An illustration inspired by the A. E. Chalon portrait created for the Ada Initiative

Dying at such a young age, Ada did not have the opportunity to receive praise for her work, nor did she know how much it would change the future. As a woman, it is unlikely she would have gained adequate recognition at the time, as is the case for many of her sex. She finally received the long due commemoration over a century after her death. In 1980, the United States Department of Defense named their computer language “Ada” in her memory, and the following year, the Association for Women in Computing inaugurated its Ada Lovelace Award. Also named after the mathematician is the Lovelace Medal for the British Computer Society, Ada College in Tottenham Hale, the Ada Initiative, and the Ada Developers Company.

Blue plaque to Ada Lovelace in St. James’s Square, London

In November 2020, Trinity College Dublin announced the plan to add four busts of famous women to their library, which until now has contained only statues of men. Ada Countess of Lovelace will make history once again alongside Rosalind Franklin (1920-58), Augusta Gregory (1852-1932), and Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97).

It is a great shame that Ada Countess of Lovelace died before she could develop more groundbreaking theories in computer science. It is an even greater shame that, for a hundred years, her gender was hidden behind her initials, leading thousands to believe technology a man’s science. Although she did not build a machine or get the chance to test her hypothetical programme, Ada’s genius ideas greatly assisted the development of modern computers.

“They say behind every great man there’s a woman,” and this is indeed true in the professional relationship between Babbage and Lovelace. Ada’s “poetical science” mindset asked questions about Babbage’s machines, and she developed visions that none of the top scientists in the industry could imagine. Whereas they saw what was in front of them, Ada realised the potential of such machines and, as we can confirm today, she was right.


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