Mary Somerville

Allan's chosen subject this year Mary Somerville-the Lady Mathematical Astronomer, one of the first serious scientific woman of the 19th century, a ‘grand amateur', of independent means who could pursue her passion to a professional level.  In and an age when scientific work was undertaken by men, very few women could be counted as equal to their male scientific peers. 

Mary was born to Lt. George Fairfax and Margaret Fairfax in 1780 in Scotland.  Her childhood was spent exploring the seaside of her hometown of Burntisland near Edinburgh.  Her father was a Vice Admiral in the navy and whilst stationed in America during the war of independence was written to by one George Washington, who thought he may be related to the Fairfax’s.  Back home Mary grew up very much ‘a tom boy’.  She had a sharp sense of humour and could swear like a trooper - something learned off her uncle who had served in India.  An algebra problem in a women's fashion magazine introduced her to mathematics.  (Couldn’t imagine Vogue running anything like that nowadays) She was curious what the symbols meant.  It was considered improper for a young lady show am interest in mathematics, and she had to secretly ask her brother's tutor to buy her a copy of Euclid's Elements, after overhearing that Elements formed the basis for understanding astronomy and other sciences.  Far from being encouraged in reading, members of her family criticised her for spending time on this unladylike occupation, so she read in secret by candle light on a night, until she was caught out.

After retiring on a modest pension her father thought what Mary needed was a husband, so in 1804 when aged 24, Mary married a distant relative, Samual Greig, a Russian diplomatic naval attaché.  He had a low opinion of Mary, and did not encourage or support her in her thirst for knowledge.  The marriage was short; he died of fever a few years after they were wed.  The death of her husband, although difficult and tragic, did however; afford Mary an opportunity quite rare to women of her time. 

Mary found that widowhood and a comfortable inheritance had left her both emotionally and financially independent.  She was free to study according to her personal convictions and returned to Edinburgh where she was given private tutorials in mathematics.  She corresponded frequently with Scotsman William Wallace, who, at the time, was mathematics master at a military college. 

Mary Somerville in Middle-age

Mary mastered J.  Ferguson's Astronomy and became a student of Isaac Newton's Principia, reading Newton's Principia and, and at Wallace's suggestion, Laplace's Mécanique Céleste and many other mathematical and astronomical texts.  She learned to the very highest level - to the French thinking on maths and was brilliant at it.  She won prizes for solving maths puzzles in journals including a silver medal from the mathematical journal –The Mathematical Repository; she also acquired a 5ft Gregorian telescope.

Then in 1812 Mary married William Somerville, a doctor, and another distant family relative.  William was extremely proud of Mary.  The family moved from Edinburgh to London.  Her husband was elected to the Royal Society and Mary and William moved in the leading scientific circles of the day.  Their friends included George Airy, Maskelyne, John Herschel, William Herschel, George Peacock, and Charles Babbage.  In addition they met with leading European scientists and mathematicians who visited London. 

In 1817 William and Mary visited Paris and were introduced to the leading scientists there by Biot and Arago (whom they had met in London).  Mary met Laplace, Poisson, Poinsot, Emile Mathieu and many others.  All thought her to be charming and quite brilliant.  They enjoyed the theatre, opera, visiting the fashion houses and going to balls, she became a real socialite.  They then continued south, where she was fated in Germany, then onto Florence, Rome, Pompeii, she even had a private audience with the Pope...She was a Scottish protestant! 

In 1824 en route through Italy, William was appointed as a physician at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea.  Returning to London, Mary and William continued close contact with their many scientific friends.  Mary Fairfax Somerville's scientific investigations began in the summer of 1825, when she carried out experiments on magnetism.  In 1826 she presented her paper entitled "The Magnetic Properties of the Violet Rays of the Solar Spectrum" to the Royal Society.  The paper attracted favourable notice and, aside from the astronomical observations of Caroline Herschel, was the first paper by a woman to be read to the Royal Society and published.  She became known for her exceptional expository talent, even so, woman were still refused entry in the great libraries and noble institutions of the country.  William had to write down whole chapters of books for Mary. 

Then in 1826 Lord Brougham, Scottish Barrister, speaker of the house of Lords, Lord Chancellor and mad keen amateur scientist, on behalf of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, began correspondence with Mary through her husband, as social convention dictated, to persuade her to write a popularised rendition of Laplace's Mecanique Céleste and Newton's Principia.  Mary undertook the project in secrecy.  In 1831 ‘A Mechanism for the Heavens’ was published, more of a reinterpretation than a translation.  It caused a sensation and the book became a required text for higher mathematics students.  Her books were used to teach ‘real tuff science’ at Cambridge University. 

Mary Somerville spent most of 1832-33 in Paris where she renewed old friendships with the mathematicians there, and where she worked on her next book; The connection of the physical sciences -an account of physical phenomena and connections among the physical sciences.  This was published in 1834.  Her discussion of a hypothetical planet perturbing Uranus in the sixth edition (1842) of this work led John Coach Adams to his investigation and subsequent discovery of Neptune.  The book also fired the imagination a young Charles Darwin. 

These projects helped firmly establish her in intellectual circles.  She and Caroline Herschel were elected in 1835 to the Royal Astronomical Society, the first women to receive such an honor.  She was granted honorary memberships to the Société de Physique et d'Histoire Naturelle de Genève (1834), The Royal Irish Academy (1834), and the Bristol Philosophical and Literary Society (1835) and eleven Italian scientific societies between 1840 and 1857.  Sir Robert Peel, British prime minister from 1834-35 and again from 1841-46, awarded her a civil pension of 200 per annum.

In 1838 William resigned his appointment at Chelsea and in 1839 the Somerville’s returned to Italy, where amongst other exploits Mary climbed Mt Versuvius just a few weeks after it had erupted.  Then in 1848, at the age of 68, Mary published yet another book in two volumes - an A-Z of the Earth’s surface entitled Physical Geography, the first modern work on the subject.  It was an enormous best seller and was widely used in schools and universities until the early 20th century. 

Many further honours were given to Mary as a result of this publication.  She was elected to the American Geographical and Statistical Society in 1857 and the Italian Geographical Society in 1870.  In 1870 the Royal Geographic society presented her with its Victoria Gold Medal. 

Her last scientific book; Molecular and Microscopic Science, which was published in 1869 when Mary was eighty-nine, and was a summary of the most recent discoveries in chemistry and physics.  In that same year she completed her autobiography, of which her daughter, Martha, published parts after her death.  Even at the age of 90 Mary and Sir John Herschel, who himself was 75, were corresponding on why Lobsters glow in the dark - and if one could take a spectrum - truly incredible.  In November of 1872 aged 92 Mary finally passed away.  Apparently shortly before her death and befitting of an admirals daughter, having outlived her husband, most of her friends and all but one child, Mary is reported to have said - “ I am ready to go now, I am just waiting for the Blue Peter to be raised and I shall journey to distant shores, to make and renew acquaintances”

Mary Somerville was a strong supporter of women's education and women's suffrage.  John Stuart Mill, the British philosopher and economist, organised a massive petition to parliament to give women the right to vote, he had Mary put her signature first on the petition.  Somerville College in Oxford was named after her in 1879 because of her strong support for women's education, a fitting tribute to a quite extraordinary woman.