Today marks 150 years since the death of Mary Somerville, the Scottish astronomer, mathematician and geographer after whom our college is named. Somerville College will be marking the occasion with an appropriately academic celebration – the ‘Mary Somerville Transcribe-a-Thon’.

Mary Somerville was chosen as the figurehead of our college for two reasons: to affirm our commitment to women’s educational rights and to celebrate the unfettered potential of intellectual endeavour across science, mathematics and the arts, as Mary Somerville herself did.

To commemorate Mary Somerville’s long-standing influence on our College, members of the Somerville community will mark the 150th anniversary of her death with a ‘Mary Somerville Transcribe-a-Thon’. Participating both online and remotely, teams of participants will transcribe letters from Mary Somerville’s extensive correspondence with the subsequent transcriptions to be compiled in a commemorative booklet as well as being uploaded to Epsilon, the open-source archive of nineteenth century letters of science at the University of Cambridge.

Through these letters we can witness Mary Somerville as the protagonist in her own life and work.

DR BRIGITTE STENHOUSE

The project was organised jointly by the Somerville College Archives, the Somerville College Development Team and Dr Brigitte Stenhouse, a Somerville alumna who next month will take up the post of Lecturer in History of Mathematics at The Open University, and whose research considers the circulation of mathematics within and between scientific households in 19th-century Britain. A researcher of Mary Somerville for over six years, Brigitte said of the project: 

“The extensive collection of Mary Somerville’s letters and papers, held by the Bodleian Library, clearly places her at the centre of a global network via which scientific books, specimens, and knowledge were shared. Very often, the letters of scientific women are subsumed into the archival collections of their male spouse or other male family member, making Mary Somerville’s papers even more extraordinary. Through them we can witness Mary Somerville as the protagonist in her own life and work. Hopefully this project will render the Mary Somerville papers more visible to historians, and showcase the many areas of historical inquiry on which her letters touch.”

Somerville’s Principal Jan Royall added, “I am delighted to see Somerville College’s mathematicians, linguists and historians, including very eminent academics, rallying around to produce such a fitting tribute to Mary Somerville. The sheer range of people participating in this programme illustrates how fortunate we are to have such a trailblazing woman of science as our figurehead. Like many Victorians, some of her views have not aged well, but the brilliance of her thinking continues to illuminate a path to academic excellence for those willing to follow it.’

Mary Somerville and a sample of her beautiful (though occasionally difficult to read) cursive script.

Mary Somerville and a sample of her beautiful (though occasionally difficult to read) cursive script.

Further reading?

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