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Who was Mary Somerville

Early life

Mary Somerville was born 26 December 1780 to Vice-Admiral Sir William George Fairfax, scion of a distinguished family of Fairfaxes, and Margaret Charters, daughter of Samuel Charters, a solicitor.

Mary was the fifth of seven children but three died very young. Of the four remaining children, Mary was brought up with her brother who was three years older than she was. A sister was born when Mary was seven, and a second brother when she was ten. The two brothers were given a good education but as per the norm during that era, little need was seen to educate girls so Mary’s parents saw no need to provide an education for their daughter. As a young child what little education she did receive was from her mother who taught her to read. When Mary was ten years old she was sent to Miss Primrose’s boarding school for girls in Musselburgh, where she learned the principles of writing, rudimentary French and English grammar.

After this Mary returned to her home in Burntisland but she began to educate herself by reading every book that she could find in her home. Her family was however opposed  to this and criticized her for spending time on this unladylike occupation. In order that she might learn the correct skills for a young lady, Mary was sent to a school in Burntisland where she was taught needlework.

At thirteen, the family rented a house in Edinburgh where they spent the winter months, the summers being spent in Burntisland. Mary balanced her life between the social life expected of a young lady and her own private study. During this time she learnt how to play the piano and was given lessons in painting from the artist Alexander Nasmyth, and through him she gained an interest in mathematics. Her younger brother’s tutor provider her with texts on mathematics and helped introduce her to the subject. Mary became so engrossed in the subject and she’d spent hours on end studying,much to her parents dismay.

Mary got married to her distant cousin (Samuel’s father was a nephew of Mary’s maternal grandfather) Samuel Greig, a naval officer in 1804 at 24 years old. Together they had two sons. Samuel died 3 years after their marriage.

Her friends, especially John Playfair, then professor of  natural philosophy at Edinburgh,strongly encouraged her in her studies for mathematics and science.Through him she began a correspondence with William Wallace ,Playfair’s former pupil, who was then professor of mathematics at the Royal Military College at Great Marlow. Together they discussed the mathematical problems set in the Mathematical Repository and in 1811 Mary received a silver medal for solving one  these problems.

In 1812 Mary Greig married William Somerville,the son of her aunt Martha, who was an inspector of hospitals. Unlike her first husband, William was interested in science and also supportive of his wife’s desire to study. At this time William and Mary lived in Edinburgh and, advised by Wallace, Mary read the most advanced French texts of the day. She also studied geology with her husband.

In 1814 Mary’s oldest daughter from her first marriage died at the age of nine and, in the same year, the only son of her second marriage died as a baby. The family the moved to Edinburgh London after Williams appointment as inspector to the Army Medical Board in 1816.

William was elected to the Royal Society and this enabled them to interact with leading scientists and mathematicians who visited London. In 1824 he was appointed as a physician at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, and the family moved to Chelsea.

Mary 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. In 1827 Lord Brougham made a request on behalf of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, for Mary Somerville to translate Laplace‘s Mécanique Céleste. However, Mary went far beyond a translation, for she explained in detail the mathematics used by Laplace which was unfamiliar to most mathematicians in England at that time. When completed, the work with title The Mechanism of the Heavens was far too large to be published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge and John Herschel recommended its publication to the publisher John Murray. The book was released in 1831 and became an immediate success.

Somerville was passionate about astronomy and was among those who discussed a hypothetical planet perturbing Uranus. In the 6th edition of Connexion (1842) she wrote, “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 were fulfilled in 1846 by the discovery of Neptune revolving at the distance of 3,000,000,000 miles from the sun.  Connexion ran to 10 editions and was its publisher’s most successful science book until The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin 1859 .

Her book Physical Geography published in 1848 ,the first English textbook on the subject and remained in use as textbook until the early 20th century, earned her the Victoria Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society.

Late life and Death

Somerville and her husband spent most of their time in Italy and she maintained correspondence with a large number of leading scientists and remained engaged in current debates on facts and theories.

She got selected to the American Geographical and Statistical Society in 1857.

In 1868, she was the first person to sign John Stuart Mill’s unsuccessful petition for female suffrage.

She got selected to the Italian Geographical society in 1870 and was made a member of the American Philosophical Society.

Somerville died at Naples on 29 November 1872 at age 91. In the year following her death, her autobiographical Personal Recollections was published, consisting of reminiscences written during her old age.


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