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Mary Somerville
Thomas Phillips - Mary Fairfax, Mrs William Somerville, 1780 - 1872. Writer on science - Google Art Project.jpg
Mary Somerville
Born Mary Fairfax
(1780-12-26)26 December 1780
Jedburgh, Scotland, Great Britain
Died 29 November 1872(1872-11-29) (aged 91)
Naples, Italy
Nationality Scottish
Fields Science Writer
Notable awards Patron's Medal (1869)

Mary Fairfax Somerville (26 December 1780 – 29 November 1872) was a Scottish science writer and polymath. She studied mathematics and astronomy, and was nominated to be jointly the first female member of the Royal Astronomical Society at the same time as Caroline Herschel.

When 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.

When she died in 1872, Mary Somerville was hailed by The Morning Post as "The Queen of Nineteenth-Century Science".[1]


Early life and educationEdit

Somerville was the daughter of Vice-Admiral Sir William George Fairfax,[2] scion of a distinguished family of Fairfaxes, and she was related to several prominent Scottish houses through her mother.[3] She was born at the manse of Jedburgh, in the Borders, which was the house of her maternal aunt, wife of Dr Thomas Somerville (1741–1830) (author of My Own Life and Times).[3] Her childhood home was at Burntisland, Fife.[2] Returning from sea, her father considered the 10-year-old "a savage" and sent her for a year of tuition at Musselburgh, an expensive boarding school.[3] Somerville returned being able to read and write, albeit poorly; she could perform simple arithmetic and knew a little French.[3]

Following this, she was informally taught elementary geography and astronomy but found her education limited compared to what her brother could expect to receive. To supplement this, her uncle, Dr Thomas Somerville, taught her Latin; he described her as an eager student.[2] Once, listening in to her brother receive tutoring in mathematics, she answered when he could not; his tutor allowed her to continue with lessons unofficially. As part of Edinburgh society she would happily attend balls and parties, "but these were rare occasions, for the balls were not numerous, and I never lost sight of the main object of my life, which was to prosecute my studies."[4]

Commemorative medal of Mary Somerville

As a lonely child, she wandered by the seashore, and on the links of Burntisland, collecting shells and flowers ; or spent the clear, cold nights at her window, watching the starlit heavens, whose mysteries she was destined one day to penetrate in all their profound and sublime laws, making clear to others that knowledge which she herself had acquired, at the cost of so hard a struggle.[4]

Somerville also studied art with Alexander Nasmyth in Edinburgh, who taught her about perspective. Inspired, she managed to obtain a copy of Euclid's Elements of Geometry, and began to teach herself from it.[2] Meanwhile, she continued in the traditional role of the daughter of a well-connected family, attending social events and maintaining a sweet and polite manner – she was nicknamed "the Rose of Jedburgh" among Edinburgh socialites.[5] Around this time, however, following the death of her sister at age ten, her parents forbade Somerville from further study, believing it had contributed to her sister's death. This did not deter her from studying on her own, although she had to continue in secret.[5]

I had studied plane and spherical trigonometry, conic sections, and Fergusson's Astronomy. I think it was immediately after my return to Scotland that I attempted to read Newton's Principia. I found it extremely difficult, and certainly did not understand it till I returned to it some time after, when I studied that wonderful work with great assiduity, and wrote numerous notes and observations on it.[4]

In 1804, she married her distant cousin, the Russian consul in London, Captain Samuel Greig, son of Admiral Samuel Greig. They had two children, one of whom, Woronzow Greig, would become a barrister and scientist.[6] They lived in London, but it was not a happy time for Somerville – although she could study more easily, her husband did not think much of women's capacity to pursue academic interests. Indeed, Greig "possessed in full the prejudice against learned women which was common at that time."[4] However, he died in 1807 and she returned home to Scotland.[5]

Her inheritance from Greig gave her the freedom to pursue intellectual interests. John Playfair, then professor of natural philosophy at University of Edinburgh, encouraged her studies, and through him she began a correspondence with William Wallace, with whom she discussed the mathematical problems set in the Mathematical Repository.[7]

In 1812, she married another cousin, Dr William Somerville (1771–1860), inspector of the Army Medical Board, who encouraged and greatly aided her in the study of the physical sciences. William warmly encouraged her zeal for study and supported her in it. "His love and admiration for her were unbounded; he frankly and willingly acknowledged her superiority to himself."[4] William was elected to the Royal Society and together they moved in the leading scientific circles of the day.

In her second marriage, Somerville very unusually managed having both having four children and making the acquaintance of the most eminent scientific men of the time, among whom her talents had attracted attention. She was passionate about astronomy and believed it to be the most extensive example of the connection of the physical sciences in that it combined the sciences of number and quantity, of rest and motion.

In [astronomy] we perceive the operation of a force which is mixed up with everything that exists in the heavens or on earth; which pervades every atom, rules the motions of animate and inanimate beings, and is as sensible in the descent of a rain-drop as in the falls of Niagara; in the weight of the air, as in the periods of the moon.[8]

Before she had acquired general fame, Pierre-Simon Laplace, an influential French scientist who is sometimes known as the "Newton of France", told her, "There have been only three women who have understood me. These are yourself Mrs Somerville, Caroline Herschel and a Mrs Greig of whom I know nothing." Somerville was both the first and third of these women.

Sir David Brewster, inventor of the kaleidoscope, wrote in 1829 that Mary Somerville was "certainly the most extraordinary woman in Europe - a mathematician of the very first rank with all the gentleness of a woman".[7]

Somerville was elected to the Royal Astronomical Society in 1835. She was elected to honorary membership of the Société de Physique et d'Histoire Naturelle de Genève in 1834 and, in the same year, to the Royal Irish Academy. She was elected to the American Geographical and Statistical Society in 1857 and the Italian Geographical Society in 1870. In 1869 she was awarded the Patron's Medal of the Royal Geographical Society,[9] then also known as the "Victoria Medal",[10] and was made a member of the American Philosophical Society.[11]

Science practice, writing and discoveriesEdit

Somerville published her first paper, "The magnetic properties of the violet rays of the solar spectrum", in the Proceedings of the Royal Society in 1826. Having been requested by Lord Brougham to translate for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge the Mécanique Céleste of Laplace, she popularised its form, and its publication in 1831, under the title of The Mechanism of the Heavens, at once made her famous. Somerville went beyond a mere translation. She stated, "I translated Laplace's work from algebra into common language".

Mary Somerville On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences

Her other works are On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834), Physical Geography (1848), which was commonly used as a text book until the early 20th century,[12] and Molecular and Microscopic Science (1869).[2] In 1835, she and Caroline Herschel became the first women members of the Royal Astronomical Society. In 1838 she and her husband went to Italy, where she spent much of the rest of her life. In 1868, four years before her death at age 91, she was the first person to sign John Stuart Mill's unsuccessful petition for female suffrage.[13]

Much of the popularity of her writings was due to her clear and crisp style and the underlying enthusiasm for her subject which pervaded them. From 1835 she received a pension of £300 from the government. Of Molecular and Micro-scopic Science (1869) she herself said: "In writing this book I made a great mistake, and repent it- Mathematics are the natural bent of my mind. If I had devoted myself exclusively to that study, I might probably have written something useful, as a new era had begun in that science."[4]

Somerville's writing influenced James Clerk Maxwell and John Couch Adams. She was among those who discussed of a hypothetical planet perturbing Uranus, in the 6th edition of On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1842), "If after the lapse of years the tables formed from a combination of numerous observations should be still inadequate to represent the motions of Uranus, the discrepancies may reveal the existence, nay, even the mass and orbit of a body placed for ever beyond the sphere of vision".

Predictions was fulfilled in 1846, by the discovery of Neptune revolving at the distance of 3,000,000,000 miles from the sun. "The mass of Neptune, the size and position of his orbit in space, and his periodic time, were determined from his disturbing action on Uranus before the planet itself had been seen."[4]

Somerville's literary friends included Maria Edgeworth, Margaret Holford, and Joanna Baillie. She was also a friend of Anne Isabella Milbanke, Baroness Wentworth, and was mathematics tutor to her daughter, Ada Lovelace. With Mary Somerville, Ada attended the scientific gatherings where she met Charles Babbage. Somerville College owns a letter from Charles Babbage to Mary Somerville inviting her to view his ‘Calculating Engine’.[14]

In Scotland the Somerville family were neighbours of the writer Walter Scott "I shall never forget the charm of this little society, especially the supper-parties at Abbotsford, when Scott was in the highest glee, telling amusing tales, ancient legends, ghost and witch stories."[4]

After receiving a copy of Somerville's Preliminary Dissertation to the Mechanism of the Heavens (1832), Joanna Baillie wrote Somerville, "I feel myself greatly honoured by receiving such a mark of regard from one who has done more to remove the light estimation in which the capacity of women is too often held than all that has been accomplished by the whole Sisterhood of Poetical Damsels & novel-writing Authors."[15]

Death and legacyEdit

Somerville College, Oxford

Somerville died at Naples on 29 November 1872, and was buried there in the English Cemetery.[16] In the following year there appeared her autobiographical Personal Recollections, consisting of reminiscences written during her old age, and of great interest both for what they reveal of her own character and life and the glimpses they afford of the literary and scientific society of bygone times. Somerville's papers were collected at the Bodleian Library of Oxford University.[17]

The English Cemetery, Naples. Statue of Mary Somerville is in the background.

The collection includes Somerville's papers relating to her writing and published work, and correspondence with family members and with numerous scientists and writers who shared her interests, and others in public life. The Bodleain collection includes correspondence and papers of Somerville's parents, Vice Admiral Sir William George Fairfax and Lady Margaret Charters Fairfax; her son, Woronzow Greig and his wife, Agnes (née Graham); her brother, Henry, his family, and the family of his first wife, Montgomerie Williamson; Thomas Somerville, her father-in-law; as well as substantial correspondence with the Byron and Lovelace families.

Somerville College, Oxford, was named after Somerville, as is Somerville House, Burntisland, where she lived for a time[18] and Somerville House, a high school for girls in Brisbane, Australia. One of the Committee Rooms of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh has been named after her.

Somerville Island (74°44′N 96°10′W / 74.733°N 96.167°W / 74.733; -96.167), a small island in Barrow Strait, Nunavut, was named after her by Sir William Edward Parry in 1819.

The Somerville Club was founded in 1878 in London, by 1887 it was re-established as the New Somerville Club and had disappeared by 1908.[19]

5771 Somerville (1987 ST1) is a main-belt asteroid discovered on 21 September 1987 by E. Bowell at Lowell Observatory Flagstaff, Arizona, and named for her.

Somerville Crater

Somerville crater is a small lunar crater in the eastern part of the Moon. It lies to the east of the prominent crater Langrenus, and was designated Langrenus J before being given her name by the International Astronomical Union. It is one of a handful of lunar craters named after a woman.

Somerville appears as a character in the 2014 film 'Mr. Turner', where as a friend of the painter J. M. W. Turner, she demonstrates the scientific use of light and colour, via a prism, much to Turner's amazement.

In February 2016 she was shortlisted, along with Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell and civil engineer Thomas Telford, in a public competition run by Royal Bank of Scotland to decide whose face should appear on the bank's new £10 notes, to be issued in 2017.[20] Later that month RBS announced that she had won the public vote, held on Facebook. The new banknotes, bearing her image, are scheduled to be issued in the second half of 2017.[21]



  1. ^ Alic, Margaret (1986). Hypatia's Heritage: A History of Women in Science from Antiquity to the Late Nineteenth Century. The Women's Press. p. 182. ISBN 0-7043-3954-4. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Mary T Brück. "Mary Somerville, mathematician and astronomer of underused talents". Journal of the British Astronomical Association. 206 (4): 201. 
  3. ^ a b c d Somerville, Mary Fairfax Greig. Dictionary of Scientific Biography. 11 & 12. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. pp. 521–522. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h "Full text of "Personal recollections, from early life to old age, of Mary Somerville : with selections from her correspondence"". Retrieved 2016-02-17. 
  5. ^ a b c Somerville, Mary Fairfax Greig. Dictionary of Scientific Biography. 11 & 12. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. p. 522. 
  6. ^ Appleby, J.H (22 January 1999). "Woronzow Greig (1805-1865), F.R.S., and his scientific interests" (PDF). Notes and Records of the Royal Society. 53 (1): 95–106. doi:10.1098/rsnr.1999.0065. Retrieved 19 August 2007. 
  7. ^ a b O'Connor, John J; Robertson, Edmund F (November 1999). "Mary Fairfax Greig Somerville". MacTutor History of Mathematics. University of St Andrews, Scotland. Retrieved 13 March 2016. 
  8. ^ "Full text of "On the connection of the physical sciences"". Retrieved 2016-02-17. 
  9. ^ "Gold Medal Recipients" (PDF). Royal Geographical Society. Retrieved 19 April 2015. 
  10. ^ Freeman, T. W. (1966), "Baker, J.N.L. The history of geography" (PDF), Cahiers de géographie du Québec, Erudit, 10 No 20, p. 352, retrieved 26 June 2009 
  11. ^ Oughton, M. (1978), Freeman, T. W; Oughton, M.; Pinchemel, P., eds., "Mary Somerville, 1780–1872", Geographers: biobibliographical studies, London and New York: Mansell, 2, pp. 109–11 
  12. ^ O'Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., "Mary Somerville", MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, University of St Andrews .
  13. ^ Arianrhod, Robyn (29 November 2012). "What sort of science do we want?". OUPblog. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 29 November 2012. 
  14. ^ "Somerville and Mathematics" (PDF). Mathematics Institute, University of Oxford. Retrieved 17 Feb 2016. 
  15. ^ Baillie, Joanna (2010). McLean, Thomas, ed. Further Letters of Joanna Baillie. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press. p. 144. ISBN 978-0-8386-4149-1. 
  16. ^ Giancarlo Alisio, Il Cimitero degli Inglesi, Naples, 1993, ISBN 88-435-4520-5
  17. ^ "Mary Somerville Papers". Retrieved 2016-02-17. 
  18. ^ O'Connor, John J; Robertson, Edmund F (December 1999). "Somerville's House in Burntisland". MacTutor History of Mathematics. University of St Andrews, Scotland. Retrieved 13 March 2016. 
  19. ^ Crawford, Elizabeth (2003). The Women's Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928. Routledge. p. 128. ISBN 978-1-135-43402-1. 
  20. ^ "Royal Bank of Scotland announces shortlist to appear on new £10 note". Royal Bank of Scotland. 1 February 2016. Retrieved 13 March 2016. 
  21. ^ Royal Bank of Scotland press release dated 10 February 2016.


  • Somerville, Martha. Personal Recollections, From Early Life to Old Age, of Mary Somerville. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1874. (written by her daughter) Reprinted by AMS Press (January 1996), ISBN 0-404-56837-8 Fully accessible from Google Books project.
  • Neeley, Kathryn A. Mary Somerville: Science, Illumination, and the Female Mind, Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Fara, Patricia (September 2008). "Mary Somerville: a scientist and her ship". Endeavour. England. 32 (3): 83–5. doi:10.1016/j.endeavour.2008.05.003. PMID 18597849. 

External linksEdit