Somerville, Mary Fairfax

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Somerville, Mary Fairfax

Scottish-born English Mathematics Writer 17801872

Mary Fairfax Somerville was born December 26, 1780, the fifth of seven children, to Margaret Charters and Lieutenant William George Fairfax. The family lived in Scotland during an era in which it was customary to provide daughters with an education emphasizing domestic skills and social graces. When Somerville was nine years old, her father expressed disappointment with her reading, writing, and arithmetic skills, and the following year, Somerville was sent to an expensive and exclusive boarding school. She was very unhappy and left there, her only full-time formal schooling, at the end of the year.

When she was 13, Somerville encountered algebra by chance when looking at a ladies' fashion magazine. At this time, such things as riddles, puzzles, and simple mathematical problems were common features in such publications. As a result of her curiosity, Somerville persuaded her younger brother's tutor to buy her copies of Bonny Castle's Algebra and Euclid's Elements.

Somerville's father was unhappy with the books she was reading, fearing negative effects on her domestic skills and social graces, and forbade her to read such materials. Despite her father's restrictions, Somerville secretly continued to read about mathematics by candlelight during the night while others in her family slept.

In 1804, at the age of 24, she married her cousin, Captain Samuel Greig of the Russian Navy, and they eventually had two sons, Woronzow (18051865) and William George (18061814). After the death of Greig in 1807, Somerville began, for the first time, to openly study mathematics and investigate physical astronomy. One of her most helpful mentors during this time was William Wallace (17681843), a Scottish mathematics master at a military college. It was upon his advice that Somerville obtained a small library of French books to provide her with a sound background in mathematics. These works were important in forming her mathematical style and account, in part, for her mastery of French mathematics.

Another supporter of her mathematical studies was her cousin, Dr. William Somerville (17771860), who was a surgeon in the British Navy. They were married in 1812 and had four children. With the encouragement of her husband, Somerville explored her interest in science and mathematics that steadily deepened and expanded into four books that would become her most important works.

In 1831, she published The Mechanism of Heavens, which was a "translation" of the first four books of the French mathematician, Laplace's Mécanique Céleste. Her work was noted as being far superior to previous attempts (mere translations of only Laplace's first book) at bringing such work to English readers.

In 1834 Somerville's second book, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, an account of the connections among the physical sciences, was met with even greater success and distinctions. She and Caroline Herschel were elected to the Royal Astronomical Society in 1835, becoming the first women so honored.

In 1838, William Somerville's failing health caused the family to move to the warmer climate of Italy, where William died in 1860. Mary spent the remaining years of her life in Italy and in 1848, at age 68, published her third and most successful book, Physical Geography, which was widely used in schools and universities for many years. Her last scientific book, On Molecular and Microscopic Science, a summary of the most recent discoveries in chemistry and physics, was published in 1869 when she was 89.

During the last years of her life, Mary Somerville was involved in many projects, including writing a book on quaternions and reviewing a volume, On the Theory of Differences. Her reading, studying, and writing about mathematics continued until the very day of her death. Somerville died on November 29, 1872, at the age of 92.

Gay A. Ragan


Cooney, Miriam P., ed. Celebrating Women in Mathematics and Science. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1996.

Grinstein, Louise S., and Paul J. Campbell. Women of Mathematics. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.

Osen, Lynn M. Women in Mathematics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1974.

Perl, Teri. Math Equals: Biographies of Women Mathematicians and Related Activities. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1978.

. Women and Numbers: Lives of Women Mathematicians plus Discovery Activities. San Carlos, CA: Wide World Publishing/Tetra, 1993.

Internet Resources

The MacTutor History of Mathematics archive. University of St Andrews. <>.

"Mary Fairfax Somerville." Biographies of Women Mathematicians. <>.

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