Known as the "Queen of nineteenth century science," Mary Somerville (1780-1872) explained the leading scientific ideas of her day in terms that much of the educated public could understand. Though she conducted some original research, Somerville's work as a translator and interpreter influenced how developments in the physical sciences were discussed and delineated. She was also responsible for the first geography text ever published in English.
Born in Jedburgh, Scotland, on December 26, 1780, Somerville was the daughter of Sir William George and Margaret (nee Charters) Fairfax. Her mother was Scottish, while her father was English. He served as a vice admiral in the Royal Navy and was a hero of the Battle of Camperdown. Due to the demands of his work, he was often away from home. Somerville was the fifth of seven children, who grew up in Burntisland, a small Scottish coastal village.
As a child, Somerville received little formal education outside of learning from the Bible. Instead, she ran wild, exploring the Scottish coast while avoiding dolls and other feminine toys. Somerville did not learn to read very well, could not write at all, and knew nothing of numbers or language. At the time, daughters were expected to focus on domestic and social matters. They were also expected to master at least minimal reading and writing skills.
To put their daughter on the right path and curb her wild behavior, Somerville's parents sent her, at the age of ten, to an elite girls boarding school located in Musselburgh. She learned very little. Somerville did not like the stifling educational methods, which focused on repetition and memorization. Though she began to enjoy reading, and learned some handwriting, grammar, arithmetic and French, Somerville remained at this school for only 12 months.
Discovered the Wonders of Algebra
Somerville grew into a socially active teenager, who was known for her beauty. She was properly instructed in domestic and social arts. Her life changed profoundly at the age of 15, when she encountered algebraic symbols while reading a fashion magazine. Somerville became intrigued and wanted to learn more. She studied algebra on her own, and craved more knowledge. Though she received some private instruction, Somerville's parents tried to discourage these pursuits. Her father feared that she might drive herself insane. At the time, it was believed that a woman's constitution could not handle much intellectual effort without causing damage to her physical and mental health.
Despite the efforts of her parents to stop her—which included confiscating candles to prevent her from studying at night—Somerville continued to learn. She read her father's books on navigation. She taught herself Latin so she could read Euclid and learn about his geometry. Somerville read and committed to memory six of his books, as well as other classics. She managed to dodge the lack of candles at night by memorizing formulas she wanted to work on and solving problems in her head in the dark. Somerville did have some supporters. Her brother's tutor bought her books she needed, as proper women did not go into bookstores. A sympathetic uncle helped her with classical studies. For the most part, however, Somerville was dissuaded from pursuing her studies.
In 1804, Somerville was forced to marry her first cousin, Admiral Sir Samuel Grieg, a captain in the Russian navy. The couple moved to London, where Grieg was employed as the Russian navy's consul. While raising two sons, Woronzow and George, Somerville tried to study science and math in her free time. However, her husband did not think women should have intellectual pursuits and discouraged these efforts. The tense marriage came to an end when Grieg died in September 1807, soon followed by their son George. After the death of her husband and son, Somerville resumed her studies, shortly before returning to Scotland with her surviving son.
The income that Grieg's death brought her allowed Somerville to continue her intellectual pursuits. Though she maintained her family, domestic, and social obligations, many members of her family, as well as friends, derided her decision to keep up her studies. Somerville did have some encouragement from leading intellectuals and scholars in Edinburgh, including William Wallace, who became professor of mathematics at Edinburgh University. Somerville studied higher mathematics and physical astronomy. She read Isaac Newton's book Principia and began to submit solutions to problems posted in contests run by mathematics journals. In 1811, Somerville won a silver prize for solving a diaphiantine equations problem in Mathematical Repository.
Found Intellectual Soul-Mate
In 1812, she married William Somerville, an army doctor. The couple eventually had four children, three daughters and one son. Only Martha and Mary survived into adulthood. Unlike Grieg, William Somerville was completely supportive of his wife's intellectual interests. He was proud of her achievements and encouraged her to take on Greek, geology, botany, and mineralogy.
Four years after they were married, the family moved to London, where William Somerville was elected to the Royal Society of Surgeons. Somerville met the leading scientists of the day, and learned about their latest work. The family traveled to Europe on a regular basis, and Somerville began corresponding with scientists there. She established a name for herself, and was respected by those interested in reforming the British scientific society.
The most important piece of original research Somerville conducted concerned sunlight and its magnetizing effects. In 1826, she published the results in "On the Magnetizing Power of the More Regrangible Solar Rays," in the Royal Society's Philsophical Transactions. Though her husband had to present the paper, because women were not permitted to attend meetings of the Royal Society, Somerville's work was generally praised. Later, however, her conclusions were proven to be incorrect.
Greatest Scientific Contribution
In about 1827, Lord Henry Brougham, head of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, approached Somerville about translating Pierre Laplace's Celestial Mechanics (also known as Mecanique Celeste ). The book was complex. Somerville feared she might not be up to the task because she lacked a university education. Despite her concerns, she spent the next four years translating the book, with help and encouragement from her husband.
When the translation was published in 1831 as Mechanism of the Heavens, Somerville was acclaimed for her work. She did not merely translate the text, but added her own commentaries and explained the complexities in such a way that a layperson could understand. The book discussed everything that was known about the mathematics of gravity. Laplace, the original author, was one of many who praised her translation, claiming she was one of the few who actually understood his work. In addition to selling well, Mechanism of the Heavens was used as a college text for the next century. Somerville's preface to the translation, in which she explains the background to Laplace's book, was expanded upon and published separately the following year as Preliminary Dissertation on the Mechanism of the Heavens.
The success of these publications prompted the Royal Astronomical Society to name her, along with Caroline Herschel, an honorary member in 1833. They were the first women so honored. Somerville also received a civil pension from Sir Robert Peel for her accomplishments. The amount at the beginning was £200, though it was later increased to £300.
Somerville's next publication was an even bigger success. The Connection of the Physical Sciences was first published in 1834, and was reissued through ten subsequent editions. The last edition was published in 1877. It was later translated into French and German. The book summarized all that was known in the physical sciences, but also showed how different branches of science overlap in techniques and ideas.
When Somerville's husband became ill in 1838, the family moved from London to Italy for his health. She continued her work while caring for him. Somerville spent most of the rest of her life on the European continent—even after the death of her husband in 1860 and son in 1865. Though family concerns were paramount, Somerville continued her scientific work.
Published Physical Geography
Somerville spent ten years on her next book, Physical Geography. When it was published in 1848, Physical Geography was the first geography text to be written in English and arguably her most popular original work. The book was revised six times, with the last revision coming in 1877 (by one of her daughter's and John Murray). Previous geography texts in English were only concerned with a country by country description of physical phenomena. Somerville took that idea one step further. She explained why those phenomena were there and how they were related. She also discussed landforms, the role played by humans in the modification of the physical environment, atmospheric processes, and bio-geography. Somerville was criticized for arguing that the earth was extremely old, based on geologic evidence. She was called godless for believing that the earth could be older than what was claimed in the Bible.
Somerville's last work of note was the two-volume On Molecular and Microscopic Science, published in 1869. Though the material was generally obsolete by the time the books came out, many reviewers gave her polite but not glowing reviews. Despite the outdated nature of On Molecular and Microscopic Science, Somerville's contributions to science were widely recognized that year. She was awarded the Victoria Gold Medal at the Royal Geographic Society of London. Although she was a patron of the Society, Somerville never achieved member status because of her gender. She was also awarded the Geographical Society of Florence's Victor Emmanuel Gold Medal, and elected to the American Philosophical Society.
Somerville died at her home in Naples, Italy, on November 29, 1872. She was almost 92 years old and still working on a mathematics article at the time of her death. The following year her autobiography, Personal Recollections of Mary Somerville, was published, after being edited by her daughter. Somerville's papers were collected at the Bodleian Library of Oxford University. She was honored by Oxford through the naming of Somerville Hall, the creation of the Mary Somerville scholarship for women in math, and the establishment of Somerville College (in 1879).
Further Reading on Mary Somerville
Dictionary of Scientific Biography, edited by Charles Coulston Gillispie, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975.
Larkin, Robert P. and Gary L. Peters, Biographical Dictionary of Geography, Greenwood Press, 1993.
The Macmillan Dictionary of Women's Biography, third edition, edited by Jennifer Uglow, 1998.
Notable Mathematicians: From Ancient Times to the Present, edited by Robyn V. Young, Gale Group, 1998.
Patterson, Elizabeth Chambers, Mary Somerville and the Cultivation of Science, 1815-1840, Martinus Nijoff Publishers, 1983.
Somerville, Martha, Personal Recollections from the Early Life to Old Age of Mary Somerville, Roberts Brothers, 1874.
Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia, edited by Sally Mitchell, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1988.
World Who's Who in Science: From Antiquity to the Present, Marquis Who's Who, 1968.
Yount, Lisa, A to Z of Women in Science and Math, Facts on File, Inc., 1999.
IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, December 1992.
Science, February 10, 1984.
Sky and Telescope, February 1987.