This morning on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, the Principal of Somerville College, Dr Alice Prochaska, spoke about why Mary Somerville deserves a place on the new RBS £10 note. The broadcast is now available to listen to on the iPlayer (at around the 36:11 mark) and the interview is transcribed below.
How did the College come to take Mary’s name?
Somerville College, Oxford was founded for that one half of the population who were excluded from higher education because they were women and Mary Somerville was really the ideal woman in the minds of 19th century intellectuals. She was the best known woman scientist of her day and very deeply admired and an absolute model of intellectual achievement. She had attained her education almost all by herself at her own initiative and had written these wonderfully clear books of science which were celebrated throughout Europe, much translated, well known not just in England, very influential on other scientists as well as being wonderful examples of public science. She was the woman for whom the term ‘scientist’ was coined.
How did she manage to educate herself?
She did an enormous amount of reading often late at night and in secret. As she grew up, she approached the people who tutored her brothers and asked them to help her learn and I think they were captivated by her extraordinary intellect and her passion for algebra, for example. She got a great deal of help particularly from figures in Edinburgh, people who were part of the Scottish enlightenment if you like, mathematicians like William Wallace.
So what is her importance in the development of astronomy and mathematics?
Part of her importance is that she pulled together the strands of so many different areas of science and made the connection between them clear. In fact, her best known work is the Connexion of the Physical Sciences and that actually drew attention to the way in which different areas in science influenced each other. For example, she was very interested in light and the idea that the ultraviolet part of the prism could create magnetism. She did a lot of influential work on electromagnetism but she also worked on geography, geology, chemistry and really made people look at science in a new way.
She married twice and had six children, but her first paper was published under her second husband’s name, why was that?
In those days women could not be members of the Royal Society which was the body that published the paper and so her husband undertook to publish it and he had to publish it in his name because a woman writer simply wouldn’t be acknowledged, he was actually made a Fellow of the Royal Society. If he had not published it in his name, it wouldn’t have been published. He was a great supporter of his wife and a very enlightened man who really did an enormous amount to help her work. But, I should say the Royal Society did celebrate Mary Somerville by commissioning a bust by the sculptor Chantrey which is there in their rooms today.
Why would she be worthy, would you say, of being the face on the new banknote?
She was, I think, just about the most influential writer on science of the 19th century in the sense that she wrote about the whole sweep of science and she wrote books that sold in their tens of thousands, went through numerous editions, were adopted as textbooks at the universities where, of course, she herself was not enabled to study. She had really a profound public influence in the 19th century.
She also influenced, in her quiet and unsung way, she influenced some of the great discoveries. She paved the way for the discovery of the planet Neptune she was acknowledge by James Clerk Maxwell for her work on electro dynamics which had actually helped him to formulate his own famous equations. She deserves far greater recognition than she’s had for the last 100 years or more and I think it’s about time.
One of the reasons on why she hasn’t been more recognised is because, as a woman, she was excluded from all the forums in which men could propagate their work and become famous, so she couldn’t give public lectures or engage in disputations like Huxley or Darwin. Her work was known through her writings and through the circle of intellectuals that she moved in.
What is the mood around the College, which of course is now a mixed college; it’s not a woman’s college anymore, at the idea that she may be honoured in this way?
Oh, terrific excitement, terrific! People really really want Mary Somerville to be recognised. Both men and women at Somerville have a feeling that the College’s ethos of inclusion, tolerance, broadmindedness, pioneering, these are all things that we associate with the College and it’s very very exciting to think that Mary Somerville, who stands for all of those things and much more, might be so publicly recognised.