Mary Somerville, scientist, mathematician and writer, died on the 29th of November, 1872.
Mary Somerville has been compared with Hypatia of Alexandria, but although Somerville of Jedburgh made a significant contribution to the male dominated world of 19th Century astronomy, mathematics and science, she didn’t suffer a horrible fate at the hands of a Christian mob. In an age when many thought women were meant to be no more than decorative objects, Somerville’s achievements were so significant that the word ‘scientist’ was coined specifically for her description. That occurred in 1834, when William Whewell used the word in his review of her book, ‘The Connection of the Physical Sciences’. However, it’s fair to say he was only looking for a less unwieldy term than ‘men and women of science’ as he could use no longer the hitherto adequate ‘men of science’. A year later, Mary Somerville, along with Caroline Herschel, became the first women members of the Royal Astronomical Society and she was awarded a civil pension by the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, in recognition of her work in communicating science to a wider audience
Prior to her 1834 publication, Mary had made her name when she translated into English a book of Pierr-Simon, Marquis de Laplace. That 1831 book was entitled ‘The Mechanism of the Heavens’ and it made her instantly famous. Laplace was moved to pay her the compliment, albeit slightly backhanded as it was, of saying that she was the only woman to understand his mathematical work. Indeed, she was a writer who had a deep understanding of science, astronomy and mathematics as her other well known books, ‘Physical Geography’ and ‘Molecular and Microscopic Science’, published in 1848 and 1869 respectively, testify. Her books achieved popularity, not only because she wrote in a clear and accessible style, but because of her considerable depth of expertise. Not only that, her books were said to have influenced no less a figure than Maxwell, a fellow Scot.
Mary Farifax was born in Jedburgh on the 26th of December, 1780. Mary received little formal education, as was common for girls at the time, but when she was ten, she was sent to Miss Primrose’s Boarding School for Girls in Musselburgh. She didn’t have a happy time there and after a year she left, feeling “like a wild animal escaped out of a cage”. Her mother had taught her to read, but it was the artist, Alexander Nasmyth, who first stirred Mary’s interest in mathematics and algebra, which were essential, not only for an artist’s perspective, but for understanding astronomy and other sciences. She enlisted the help of her younger brother’s tutor to study Euclid’s ‘Elements’ and also got him to provide her with algebra texts. Mary was also able to study geometry and Latin.
Her first husband, Captain Samuel Greig, died in 1806 and Mary became a twenty-five years old widow, albeit a very wealthy one. She pursued her scientific interests and was encouraged by John Playfair, Professor of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh, and Playfair’s former pupil, William Wallace. As a result of correspondence with Wallace, in 1811, Mary received a silver medal for her solution to one of the problems posed in the ‘Mathematical Repository’. At that time, she also read Newton’s ‘Principia’ and was introduced to Laplace’s ‘Exposition du système du monde and the Méchanique céleste’, which she later famously translated.
She remarried in 1812 and her second husband, Dr. William Somerville, was both interested in science and supportive of Mary’s desire to study. The non-Regal William and Mary moved in the leading scientific circles and were friends with many of the most eminent ‘scientists’ and the thinkers of the day. Mary studied botany and geology, and even Greek. Then in 1826, Mary Somerville published her first paper for the ‘Royal Society’, ‘The magnetic properties of the violet rays of the solar spectrum’ and that led to Lord Brougham’s request on behalf of the ‘Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge’ for Mary to translate Laplace’s ‘Mécanique Céleste’. With her acquired knowledge, this extraordinary Scotswoman went far beyond a translation to explain, in detail, the mathematics used by the Frenchman, which were quite unfamiliar to English mathematicians at the time. In another review, James David Forbes, later Principal of the University of St Andrews, somewhat patronisingly, wrote of Mary that she was “…ready to talk on [scientific subjects] with the… utmost apparent unconsciousness of the rarity of such knowledge as she possesses, so that it requires a moment's reflection to be aware that one is hearing something very extraordinary from the mouth of a woman”.
Mary’s work was influential as her mention, in the sixth edition of her second book, of a hypothetical planet perturbing Uranus was what led John Couch Adams to his discovery of Neptune. She also received great recognition and many awards. In 1834, she was elected to honorary membership of the ‘Société de Physique et d'Histoire Naturelle de Genève’ and she was elected to the American ‘Geographical and Statistical Society’ in 1857, the Italian ‘Geographical Society’ in 1870, and also in 1870, she was given the ‘Victoria Gold Medal’ of the ‘Royal Geographical Society’. In 1879, Oxford’s Somerville College was named after Mary as was Somerville Island, off the coast of British Columbia, near the border with Alaska, and Somerville Crater on the Moon is one of only a handful of lunar craters named after a woman. Sir David Brewster, inventor of the kaleidoscope, wrote that Mary Somerville was “…certainly the most extraordinary woman in Europe – a mathematician of the very first rank... She is also a great natural philosopher and mineralogist”.
From 1838, most of the rest of Mary’s life was spent in Italy after William’s health deteriorated. In Italy, she continued to write and her 1848 book, ‘Physical Geography’, was still being used in schools and universities at the beginning of the 20th Century. She died in Naples on the 29th of November, 1872, three years after her last scientific book, ‘Molecular and Microscopic Science’, was published. She completed an autobiography, published after her death, in which she wrote with charming modesty, “My life has been domestic and quiet. I have no events to record that could interest the public. My only motive in writing it is to show my country women that self education is possible under the most unfavourable and even discouraging circumstances”.