Mary Somerville

(1780-1872) – Scientist and polymath

The Scottish astronomer, mathematician and geographer Mary Somerville’s interest in science was first kindled as a child by the natural world. During her adolescence, Somerville became an omnivorous autodidact, teaching herself Latin and Greek and seizing on chance encounters with family members and friends to acquire new books (including Euclid’s Elements). As a young woman, Somerville would rise early to play the piano, paint during the day then stay up late to study Euclid and algebra.

Somerville’s first marriage was not a happy one, primarily because her husband did not support her academic interests. When he died in 1807, she returned home to Scotland, where she promptly resumed her studies. It was at this time that she first read Isaac Newton’s Principia, which influenced her profoundly. With the encouragement of John Playfair, professor of natural philosophy at University of Edinburgh, she started to solve mathematical problems posed in the mathematical journal of the Military College at Marlow, leading to her first public recognition after her solution to a diophantine problem was awarded a silver medal in 1811.

In 1812, she married Dr William Somerville, who supported and greatly aided her studies. A move to London in 1819 led to a role as private tutor to Ada Lovelace and the two women attended the scientific gatherings where they met Charles Babbage. Somerville College owns a letter from Babbage to Somerville inviting her to view his ‘Calculating Engine’, an offer which Somerville frequently took him up on.

Mary Somerville was the author of five books. She published the first, The Mechanism of the Heavens, when she was 51. The second, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, ran to nine editions and sold over 15,000 copies and established her reputation in elite science. Her third book, Physical Geography, was the most popular of all her books, but her fourth book, Molecular and Microscopic Science, while also a popular success, led Somerville to wonder whether she should not have focused solely on mathematics, which she considered her natural inclination.

From 1833 onwards, the Somerville family spent much of their time in Italy, where Somerville continued to write and engage in current scientific debates. In 1868, four years before her death aged 91, she was the first person to sign John Stuart Mill’s unsuccessful petition for female suffrage. A mathematician to the last, she spent the day before her death revising a paper on quaternions.

In 1879, just seven years after Somerville’s death, Mary Ward’s suggestion of the name ‘Somerville’ for the as-yet unnamed non-denominational hall, was universally accepted by its founders.

Did you know? The gender-neutral term ‘scientist’ (as opposed to natural philosopher or man of science) was coined specifically to describe Mary Somerville by the philosopher William Whewell in 1834.

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