Women’s Week #3: Mary Somerville

This week’s final blog post is on Mary Somerville, born in 1780 in Scotland. She was a science writer who also studied mathematics and astronomy.

She was born to Admiral William George Fairfax, who was the vice admiral of the British Navy, and thus was frequently away at sea. Despite her family’s fortunate economic position, her education was “scant and haphazard”; she only studied her first simple arithmetic at the age of 13. She was enrolled on a writing course and at the same time began her study of algebra as she stumbled upon mysterious symbols in the puzzles of a women’s fashion magazine and was able to persuade her brother’s tutor to purchase some elementary literature on the subject for her.

Somerville married Samuel Greig,who was a member of the Russian Navy, in 1804 when she was 24 years old. However, he died in 1807 after only three years of marriage. His death, and inheritance, allowed Mary the rare opportunity to pursue her intellectual interests. Despite disapproval from her family and friends, she mastered J. Ferguson’s Astronomy and became a student of Newton’s Principia. She corresponded frequently with William Wallace, a Scottish mathematics master at a military college, who encouraged her to study mathematics.

In 1825, she conducted a scientific experiment on magnetism and presented her findings in a paper entitled “The Magnetic Properties of the Violet Rays of the Solar Spectrum“. Apart from the astronomical observations of Caroline Herschel, this was the first paper by a women to be read by the Royal Society and published in its Philosophical Transactions.

Furthermore, in 1827 she was requested by Lord Brougham to translate the “Mécanique Céleste” by Laplace for the ‘Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge’. Somerville went beyond translation and popularising it so that could reach a larger audience by including simple illustrations and experiments so that most people could understand. It was hugely popular and made her incredibly famous – in recognition a portrait of her was commissioned and placed in the Great Hall of the Royal Society.

“I translated Laplace’s work from algebra into common language.”

She also popularised Newton’s Principia and published “On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834) and “Physical Geography” (1848). Physical Geography was preached against in York Cathedral, however it proved to be her most successful publication to date and was widely used in education for the next 50 years.

Her work granted her honorary membership to the Royal Astronomical Society alongside Caroline Herschel. They were the first women scientists to  be awarded such recognition in the community.

Her last scientific book “Molecular and Microscopic Science” was published in 1869. After her death in 1972, her legacy still lives on:

  • Somerville is the name given to the lunar crater that lies east of the crater Langrenus;
  • 5771 Somerville is a main belt asteroid discovered in 1987 by E. Bowell at Lowell Observatory;
  • Somerville Island in the Barrow Strait, Nunavut was named for her by Sir William Edward Parry in 1819;
  • Somerville College Oxford is also named for her;
  • Mary Somerville was recently in the news as the Royal Bank of Scotland announced that their new polymer £10 notes were going to feature her portrait, and are set to be issued in the second half of 2017.

“Her grasp of scientific truth in all branches of knowledge, combined with an exceptional power of exposition, made her the most remarkable woman of her generation.”

“… certainly the most extraordinary woman in Europe – a mathematician of the very first rank with all the gentleness of a woman … She is also a great natural philosopher and mineralogist.”

-Sir David Brewster

Sources: 1 | 2 | 3

Hope you enjoyed this weeks series! Be sure to check out the posts published on Monday and Wednesday if you haven’t already. M x



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