Scotland’s scientific superstar
Name: Mary Somerville
Fields: Mathematics, astronomy and physics
Claim to fame: Author of highly successful scientific books
Mary Somerville (1780-1872) did not let a lack of formal education stand in the way of her passion for science and mathematics. Largely self-taught, Mary went on to write a series of scientific books that would bring the subject alive.
A wild creature
Mary Fairfax was born on 26 December 1780 in the home of her aunt and uncle in Jedburgh, Scotland, where her mother, Margaret Charters, was breaking her journey between London and Fife. Mary’s father, later Vice-Admiral Sir William George Fairfax, was away at sea at the time, as he would be for much of her childhood. With an absent father and a mother whose only demands were that she learnt to read the Bible and say her prayers, Mary was, in her own words, “allowed to grow up a wild creature”.
As was often the case for girls in the 18th century, Mary’s education was haphazard and limited. Her only formal schooling was a year at a boarding school for girls in Musselburgh, near Edinburgh, during which she was deeply unhappy. Mary first studied arithmetic at the age of 13 and came across algebra, by accident, when reading an article in a women’s magazine. She persuaded her brother’s tutor to purchase some literature on the subject for her, enabling her to develop her interest further.
Two weddings and a funeral
In 1804, Mary married her cousin, Captain Samuel Greig, the Russian consul in London. Greig had no interest in mathematics or science and held intellectual women in low regard, but he did not interfere with his wife’s study. The couple had two sons, Woronzow and William George, before Samuel’s death in 1807.
Widowhood and a sizeable inheritance offered Mary independence, allowing her to study as she wished. She achieved a solid grounding in mathematics and began to take an interest in astronomy. In 1812, Mary remarried. Her second husband, Dr William Somerville, was inspector of the Army Medical Board. Being a scientist himself, he was actively supportive of his wife’s endeavours, serving as her secretary and editor, as well as introducing her to fellow scientists. Their social circle in London included such prominent scholars as Charles Babbage and the Herschel family. Mary and William went on to have four children together.
A magnetic personality
Once widowed, Mary took up serious intellectual study and her first success came when she won a silver medal in a mathematical contest. With her new husband she took up geology and collecting and describing minerals, later broadening her interests with the study of Greek, botany, meteorology and astronomy.
Mary began pursuing scientific experiments on magnetism in the summer of 1825. The following year, her paper on ‘The magnetic properties of the violet rays of the solar spectrum’ was presented to the Royal Society by her husband. The work attracted favourable notice and was published. Although the theory contained in the paper would later be refuted, the work itself marked Mary out as a skilled scientific writer.
Following on from this success, Mary was persuaded to produce a popularised translation of the Marquis de Laplace’s Mécanique céleste, so that a wider public might understand the work of the great French astronomer and mathematician. Mary added a lengthy introduction and The mechanism of the heavens was a triumph. The Royal Society marked her achievement by placing a bust of her in its hall.
The planets align
Mary travelled to mainland Europe in 1832, where she worked on her second book. On the connexion of the physical sciences was published in 1834 and included a discussion about a hypothetical planet perturbing Uranus that inspired John Couch Adams to carry out his investigation which led to the discovery of Neptune.
In 1835, along with the astronomer Caroline Herschel, Mary became the first female member of the Royal Astronomical Society. The government granted her a pension of 200 pounds per year, which was later raised to 300.
La dolce vita
With William in ill health, the Somervilles moved to Italy in 1838, where Mary would spend most of the rest of her life. Her most successful book, Physical geography, appeared in 1848. It was widely used by schools and universities for the following half a century. She went on to write two further books, Molecular and microscopic science and her autobiography, Personal Recollection (published 1873), before her death in Naples on 28 November 1872, one month short of her 92nd birthday.
Mary Somerville was recognised by her fellow scientists as their equal, and achieved enormous popular success with her writing, due to her ability to convey scientific information in a clear and concise manner. Her four academic works covered a wide range of scientific topics, proposing new theories and making complicated concepts easier for her readers to understand. Mary’s obvious intellectual prowess, combined with modesty, did much to demonstrate that women could rival men academically and she was rewarded for this with membership of the Royal Astronomical Society and a government pension. During her life
she promoted efforts to improve social and intellectual opportunities for women. That is certainly one of the reasons why, after her death, one of the first colleges for women at the University of Oxford, Somerville College, was named in her honour. She was also immortalised in the designation of an asteroid and a lunar crater with her name.