19th century, Science

Mary Fairfax Somerville: Queen of Nineteenth Century Science

By Lamorna Newcombe

Fifteen year old Mary Fairfax was one day shown an intriguing problem in a ladies’ fashion magazine at an Edinburgh tea-party. However, she was more fascinated by the code that the answer was presented in than the answer itself. At that time, little did she know that her interest in algebra would come to dominate and shape her life.

Mary Fairfax was born in 1780. Brought up in the Scottish Borders with a strong passion for the sea and the outdoors, she lacked any formal education. Her mother taught her to read from the bible but when her father returned from his admiralty to find what he deemed a ‘savage’ as a daughter, he sent her to Miss Primrose’s Boarding School for a single year where she learnt just enough maths to be able to keep accounts. This was not uncommon in women of that era; their minds were thought to be too delicate to understand the complicated concepts and difficult elements of maths and science. After all, a female’s progression to university or membership of the learned societies was unlikely if not impossible.

Mary was acutely aware that it was not her place, as a young lady, to be taught about such complicated things as algebra and physics. She persuaded her younger brother’s tutor to bring her the books she needed including Euclid’s Elements of Geometry and Bonnycastle’s Algebra. Quietly persevering her way through these dense texts, studying early in the morning and late at night, Mary revelled in her enjoyment of Mathematics until her father confiscated her candles fearing for her sanity. Her first husband, Samuel Grieg, a captain in the Russian Navy, similarly disapproved of her fervour to learn, believing women to be of a lower intellectual capacity than men.

It was only later when she married her cousin, Dr William Somerville, that her career as Britain’s brightest young mathematician took off. Moving to London within a stone’s throw of the Royal Society, her friendship group came to include John Herschel and Charles Lyell amongst many more of the country’s greatest men. With her husbands encouragement she rapidly advanced her knowledge, progressing through complicated texts like Newton’s Principia. Following her first publication in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1826 Lord Brougham asked Mary to begin on a translation of Laplace’s Traite de Mecanique Celeste for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. Spending hours working on her translation in secrecy, the final outcome was much more than a simple translation. She embellished the book with clear explanations and illustrations of the mathematical principles involved, placing it in context with the natural world and with its historical predecessors. Its comprehensiveness and ease of explanation meant it was quickly adopted as a maths text for students at the University of Cambridge. But it was Pierre-Simon Laplace who showered with the greatest praise saying that she was the only woman to understand his work, a task many British male mathematicians had failed to achieve.

Her second and third books, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences and the following Physical Geography reached a much wider audience and were well received by both the academic and commercial world. William Whewell, a good friend and critic, reviewed her work and praised her ‘pellucid mind’ that refused to sacrifice complexity in order to achieve clarity, guiding her readers through exact calculations to arrive at a state of understanding. But whilst she refused to sacrifice the complexity of the concepts about which she wrote, there was a determination to spread enthusiasm and knowledge to others, especially those not fortunate to receive a classical education. Charles Babbage, inventor of the difference engine and accomplished mathematician, once wrote to Mrs Somerville to congratulate her on her use of ‘common language to illustrate signs’ declaring that all to often ‘we analysts are too prone to pure symbols’.

Unfortunately, health and financial troubles forced her and her husband to leave their circle of scientific minds to live in the warmer and cheaper climates of Southern Europe. This relocation and the continuing professionalisation of science and natural philosophy in England segregated her from friends, like Caroline Herschel and Ada Lovelace. Her final book, Molecular and Microscopic Science, was published in 1869 only three years before her death aged almost 92. Criticism fell on her that despite the clear and contextual writing style it lacked the contemporary knowledge her previous books were renowned for, feeling old-fashioned and out of date.

Mary Somerville embraced life as a wife and a mother conforming to the attitudes of nineteenth century society about the role of women. But it was this compliance that opened doors to the inner circle of the scientific intelligentsia. In the early nineteenth century science was a private occupation carried out in the salons and sitting rooms of the great minds of the Royal Society. Through the social engagements of both her and her husband she had access to these great men without controversy or suspicion. When science was finally institutionalised these doors closed on Somerville and the women like her. They could read and write but were consigned to lives as amateurs, despite their brilliant minds. Universities and the greatest societies were forced by public opinion and tradition to keep them out, yet the tide was turning even within Mary Somerville’s lifetime. In 1869 she was one of many who applauded the opening of the Ladies College at Hitchin, later Girton College, Cambridge. Seven years after her death, the University of Oxford’s counterpart to Girton College was created and named after ‘the Queen of Science’, as she was heralded upon her death. It was a final recognition of what she had strived to achieve during her lifetime; the dispensation of scientific knowledge to a wider audience and especially the education of women.

Patterson. E, ‘Mary Somerville’ The British Journal for the History of Science 4 (1969)
Neeley. K, Mary Somerville: Science, Illumination and the Female Mind (Cambridge, 2001)
Chapman. A, Mary Somerville and the World of Science (Bristol, 2004)

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