Mary Somerville (1780 – 1872)

Mary Somerville

Mary Somerville

Mary Somerville was an astronomer, mathematician, mineralogist and gifted writer who completed her last work shortly before her ninetieth birthday.  Her life spanned the generations between the French revolution, the emancipation of slaves, the American War of Independence and civil war; the birth of Communism, photography and the work of Charles Darwin (who outlived her by just three years).

She is by no means the only, or even the most remarkable woman of her times: Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley probably had more influence; Ada Lovelace may have been her equal as mathematician, Caroline Herschel as an astronomer; Caroline Norton and Germaine de Stael as women of influence.  But Mary Somerville is still rather special, and was considered so by her contemporaries.  How many humans have had an island, a lunar crater and an Oxford College (the first women’s college at either of England’s great institutions) named after them?



Somerville crater on the Moon

Somerville crater on the Moon

She was not a feminist in the modern sense.  Her work stands independent of her gender and although she was considered remarkable, not many (her father, who fought at Camperdown, and first husband aside) dared to suggest that she should not presume to compete with men as a ‘natural philosopher’ and polymath.  Like Mary Astell, it was her uncle who liberated her from the chains of educational ignorance in which women in England (though not in the new United States) were imprisoned.  She was friends with many of the great men of her day, including Charles Babbage, and Henry Brougham.  Without overtly pleading the cause of women scientists, she probably did more to liberate men from their prejudices than many who did.

Nothing has afforded me so convincing a proof of the unity of the Deity as these purely mental conceptions of numerical and mathematical science which have been by slow degrees vouchsafed to man, and are still granted in these latter times by the Differential Calculus, now superseded by the Higher Algebra, all of which must have existed in that sublimely omniscient Mind from eternity.
Quoted in Martha Somerville, Personal Recollections of Mary Somerville (1874)
‘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, 1829
‘Below middle size, fair, countenance not particularly expressive except eyes which are piercing.  Short-sighted.  Manners the simplest possible. Her conversation very simple and pleasing.  Simplicity not showing itself in abstaining from scientific subjects with which she is so well acquainted, but in being ready to talk on them all with the naiveté of a child and 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.’
1831 James David Forbes
My father came home for a short time, and, somehow or other, finding out what I was about, said to my mother, ‘Peg, we must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a strait jacket one of these days. There was X., who went raving mad about the longitude!’
The warmth with which Somerville entered into my success deeply affected me; for not one in ten thousand would have rejoiced at it as he did; but he was of a generous nature, far above jealousy, and he continued through life to take the kindest interest in all I did.

Quoted in Martha Somerville, Personal Recollections of Mary Somerville (1874)

Mary Somerville timeline

1780 Mary Fairfax born in Jedburgh to Margaret and Lt. William Fairfax RN.
1789 Beginning of French Revolution
1793 Execution of Louis XVI in Paris
1804 Marries cousin Samuel Greig.
1807 Greig dies.
1811 Wins silver medal for mathematical solution published in The Mathematical Repository; reads Newton’s Principia and Laplace’s Mechanique Celeste.
1812 Marries Dr. William Somerville, a cousin who in the army medical dept.
1816 Somervilles move to London.  William becomes FRS.  They attend lectures at Royal Institution, meets John Herschel, Charles Babbage, William Whewell.
1817 Somervilles visit Paris.  Meet Laplace, Poisson etc.
1826 Presents paper entitled “The Magnetic Properties of the Violet Rays of the Solar Spectrum” to the Royal Society; first paper by a woman.
1827 Mary invited by Henry Brougham to write books about Laplace’s Celeste Mechanique, and another on Newton’s Principia.
1829 Sir William Edward Parrry names Somerville Island after her.
1831 John Murray publishes her The Mechanism of the Heavens; Michael Faraday discovers electromagnetic induction
1832-1833 Travels in Europe; Great Reform Bill passed in England
1834 Mary elected to the Société de Physique et d’Histoire Naturelle de Genève.  Publishes popular account of her work in The Connexion of the Physical Sciences.
1835 Mary elected to the Royal Astronomical Society along with Caroline Herschel.  Both are awarded Civil List pensions.
1848 Publishes Physical Geography.
1859 Darwin publishes Origin of the Species
1860 Completes Molecular and Microscopic Science.  William Somerville dies
1869 Elected to American Philosophical Society.  Publishes Molecular and microscopic science.
1870 She receives the Victoria Gold Medal from the Royal Geographic Society.
1872 Dies in Italy


Neeley, Kathryn A. Mary Somerville: Science, Illumination, and the Female Mind, Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.