Somerville, Mary Fairfax (1780–1872)

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Somerville, Mary Fairfax (1780–1872)

Scottish mathematical physicist and scientific popularizer. Born Mary Fairfax on December 26, 1780, in Jedburgh, Scotland; died on November 29, 1872, in Naples, Italy; interred in the English cemetery in Naples; daughter of Margaret (Chartres) Fairfax (sister-in-law of Dr. Thomas Somerville who wrote My Own Life and Times) and William George Fairfax (a vice-admiral); educated by self-study as well as boarding school; married Samuel Greig (a Russian consular agent), in 1804 (died 1807); married her maternal cousin William Somerville (a doctor and inspector of the army medical board), in 1812 (died 1860); children: (first marriage) Woronzow Greig (1805–1865), William Greig (1806–1814); (second marriage) Margaret Farquhar Somerville (1813–1822), Thomas Somerville (1814–1815), Martha Chartres Somerville (b. 1815), Mary Charlotte Somerville (b. 1817).

Enrolled at Miss Primrose's Academy for Girls, Musselburgh, Scotland (1789); moved to Edinburgh (1793); moved to London (1805); death of husband (1807), returned to Scotland; awarded silver medal by editors of Mathematical Repository magazine (1811); moved to London (1815); experimented with magnetism (1825); submitted paper to the Royal Society (1826); elected to the Royal Astronomical Society and awarded royal pension (1835); moved to Italy (1838); elected member of the American Geographical and Statistical Society (1857); elected member of the American Philosophical Society (1869); Victoria Gold Medal awarded by the Royal Geographical Society (1869); elected to the Italian Geographical Society (1869).

Selected publications:

Mechanism of the Heavens (London: John Murray, 1831); On the Connection of the Physical Sciences (London: John Murray, 1834); Physical Geography (London: John Murray, 1848); On Molecular and Microscopic Science (London: John Murray, 1869).

In December 1780, Margaret Chartres Fairfax was returning from London after bidding farewell to her husband William Fairfax, a Scottish vice-admiral, who was departing on a long sea voyage. When she reached Jedburgh, Scotland, and the house of her sister, Margaret went into labor on the day after Christmas; it was here that Mary Somerville was born.

Mary Somerville grew up in Burntisland, Scotland, a quaint coastal village where licensed beggars, or gaberlunzie men, wore blue coats and still went from door to door. During her father's long absences, the family lived frugally. The Fairfax house stood near the shore, and its garden ran down to the water. Somerville spent many hours exploring the rugged seacoast and observing nature. She wrote:

I never cared for dolls, and had no one to play with me. I amused myself in the garden,

which was much frequented by birds. I knew most of them, their flight and their habits…. We fed the birds when the ground was covered with snow, and opened our windows at breakfast-time to let in the robins, who would hop on the table to pick up crumbs. The quantity of song birds was very great, for the farmers and gardeners were less cruel and avaricious than they are now—though poorer.

Upon his return from sea, William was shocked to discover that his daughter, although nine years of age, could neither read nor write proficiently. The family resolved to send Mary to Miss Primrose's Academy for Girls in Musselburgh. It was a period of her life which Somerville remembered less than fondly. The clothing she was forced to wear struck her as strange. "I was enclosed in stiff stays with a steel busk in front, while above my frock, bands drew my shoulders back till the shoulder blades met. Then a steel rod, with a semi-circle which went under my chin, was clasped to the steel busk in my stays. In this constrained state I and most of the younger girls, had to prepare our lessons."

If the clothing at Miss Primrose's was less than satisfactory, Mary Somerville found the curriculum equally so. Contemporary education for women consisted chiefly of developing minimal literacy skills, in order that they might read the Bible and keep household accounts. "The chief thing I had to do was to learn by heart a page of Johnson's dictionary," she wrote, "not only to spell the words, give their parts of speech and meaning, but as an exercise of memory to remember their order of succession."

After she completed a year at Miss Primrose's Academy, Somerville's full-time education came to an end. She returned to Burntisland, and spent much of her days reading. Mary's mother, a conventional if easy-going woman, did not object. However, soon after her return Aunt Janet came to live with them. Somerville observed: "My mother did not prevent me from reading, but my aunt Janet … greatly disapproved of my conduct. She was an old maid who could be very agreeable and witty, but she had all the prejudices of the time with regard to women's duties."

Following her aunt's advice, Somerville was sent to the village school to learn the practical skill of needlework. This educational pattern continued when Mary and her mother moved to Edinburgh when Somerville was 13. There she attend a school which taught cooking, dancing, drawing, and painting, along with the basics of penmanship and arithmetic. It was in the Scottish capital that Somerville first studied the piano, beginning a lifelong passion.

During the summer, Mary and her mother visited her relatives and future in-laws in Jedburgh. The experience was a germinal one. Wrote Somerville:

For the first time in my life I met my uncle, Dr. Somerville, a friend who approved of my thirst for knowledge. During long walks with him … I had the courage to tell him that I had been trying to learn Latin, but I feared it was in vain: for my brother and other boys, superior to me in talent, and with every assistance, spent years in learning it. He assured me, on the contrary that in ancient times many women—some of them of the highest rank in England—had been very elegant scholars, and that he would read Virgil with me if I would come to his study for an hour or two every morning before breakfast which I gladly did.

With Dr. Somerville's encouragement Mary taught herself Latin and read Caesar's Commentaries, as well as enough Greek to get through portions of Xenophon and Herodotus. Another source of reading material was ladies' fashion magazines, which contained riddles, puzzles, and basic mathematical problems. It was in one such magazine that Mary Somerville first discovered algebra. Fascinated by this new mathematical system, she persuaded her brother's tutor, Mr. Gaw, to purchase some books on the subject for her. Thus, Mary Somerville obtained a copy of Bonnycastle's Algebra and a copy of Euclid's Elements. When discovered by her father reading these texts, she was forbidden to pursue her studies. Her family feared the negative effect that rigorous study would have upon her health. Nevertheless, she secretly continued to read.

In 1804, Mary married Samuel Greig, a captain in the Russian Navy. The couple transferred their residence to London, where Greig was appointed Russian consul and commissioner of the Navy. Her new husband had little sympathy for her intellectual pursuits, and for a time her education ended, save for lessons in French. In the two years following their marriage, Somerville gave birth to two sons. By the third year of their marriage, however, Samuel Greig died prematurely. Somerville found herself financially independent, and free for the first time from the control of parents and husband.

A widow, she returned to Scotland, settled in Edinburgh, and resumed her education, reading Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica, and studying physical astronomy and mathematics. Although her female relatives objected to her scientific interests, she nevertheless found support among the Edinburgh scientific community. John Playfair, the mathematician and geologist, happily assisted her, and she corresponded frequently with William Wallace, one of Playfair's protégés. At the time, Wallace was a contributor to Mathematical Repository and to Ladies' Diary. Both magazines offered prizes for solutions of mathematical problems. In 1811, Mary Somerville won a silver medal for her solution to a problem on Diaphantine equations published in Mathematical Repository.

After 15 years abroad in the army medical corps, Mary's cousin, William Somerville, returned to Scotland in 1811. In 1812, the couple married and William became head of Scottish military hospitals. William shared Mary's interests. As a classical scholar himself, he was unfailingly supportive of his wife's efforts to secure an education.

With the encouragement of her husband and the advice of William Wallace, Mary Somerville purchased a library of recent mathematical texts from France. She was fortunate, for at the time English mathematicians were largely unfamiliar with new mathematical theories emanating from France. Scotland, however, enjoyed a historical relationship with France which predated the Union of the Crowns. Thus, the Scots were much more open to French ideas. The library which Mary purchased in 1813 included 15 French works published between 1795 and 1813. "I could hardly believe that I possessed such a treasure," she wrote.

In 1815, William was ordered to London. Accompanied by her husband, Mary was able to attend lectures there at the Royal Institution, including those given by Sir Humphrey Davy. Introduced by mutual friends, the Somervilles soon began to frequent scientific circles. Many were charmed by Mary's intellect and obvious interest in science.

After a brief trip to the Continent, the Somervilles settled in Hanover Square, a district of London where many scientists resided, and where various scientific societies made their home. During the 1820s, Mary acquired a number of scientific friends, prominent among them John Herschel, Caroline Herschel , Charles Babbage, William Whewell, and George Peacock. Thus while women were barred from British universities, Somerville managed to serve an apprenticeship under some of the most talented scientists of the day. She also made the acquaintance Lady Byron and her daughter, Ada Byron Lovelace .

Mary Somerville began her scientific career in 1825, undertaking experiments in magnetism. She focused the sun's rays on a sewing needle. After prolonged exposure, the needle appeared to be magnetized by the sun's violet rays. The experiment was the subject of her first scientific paper, submitted to the Royal Society in 1826. Sir John Herschel was much impressed, and his opinion was shared by the Society. Somerville's theory was accepted, and held to be valid for several years until further research negated it.

In 1827, Somerville received a request from a Scottish friend, Lord Brougham, to write a popular version of Pierre de Laplace's Celestial Mechanics for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. His hope was to make the French work accessible to English audiences. A writer was needed with a grasp of scientific methodology, but who could communicate the contents of the book without recourse to technical language and abstract mathematical symbols.

Uncertain of her abilities, Mary Somerville accepted Lord Brougham's offer. Her acceptance, however, was conditional. She stipulated that should she fail, the manuscript would be destroyed. In addition, Somerville went to great lengths to conceal the project from all but her immediate family. She wrote of the experience:

I rose early and made such arrangements with regards to my children and family affairs that I had time to write afterwards; not, however, without many interruptions…. At Chelsea I was always supposed to be at home, and as my friends and acquaintances came so far out of their way on purpose to see me, it would have been unkind and ungenerous not to receive them. Nevertheless, I was sometimes annoyed when in the midst of a difficult problem someone would enter and say, I have come to spend a few hours with you. However, I learnt by habit to leave a subject and resume it again at once…. Frequently I hid my papers as soon as the bell announced a visitor lest anyone should discover my secret.

Mechanism of the Heavens was published in 1831, and became an instant success. The book was far more than just a translation of Laplace's work, for it also contained Somerville's own theories. At Cambridge, Somerville's translation was adopted as a core text in mathematics by Whewell and Peacock.

On the Connection of the Physical Sciences, Somerville's second book, was published in 1834. It proved to be an even greater success than her first. Her thesis dealt with the interrelation of the sciences, and Mary's choice of material greatly influenced the contemporary definition of the physical sciences. The book was translated into French, Italian, and Swedish.

In 1835, Mary Somerville and Caroline Herschel were elected as the first female members of the Royal Astronomical Society. Somerville was also elected to the Société de Physique et d'Histoire Naturelle de Genève, the Royal Irish Academy, and the Bristol Philosophical and Literary Society. A pension of £200 was awarded by the British crown, and Somerville's publisher, John Murray, commissioned a portrait of her which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland.

By 1838, William's health was beginning to falter, and the family moved to the warmer climate of Italy. There Mary spent the remaining 34 years of her life, principally in Florence, Rome, and Naples. Isolated as she was from the centers of scientific research, she nonetheless managed to produce Physical Geography, in 1848. It was her third and most successful work. Widely praised by scientists, including Alexander Humboldt, the text was used in universities for the next 50 years.

William Somerville died in 1860. He had been his wife's constant companion, supporter, and assistant for over 45 years. In 1865, Woronzow Greig, their son, also died. Mary was increasingly alone. At the suggestion of her daughter Martha Somerville , Somerville began to work on her last book, On Molecular and Microscopic Science, which explored the realm of the molecular composition of matter and the microscopic structure of plant life. By the time of its publication, she was 89.

Between 1840 and 1857, Mary Somerville had been honored with memberships in no less than 11 Italian scientific societies. In 1857 and 1869, she was made a member of the American Geographical and Statistical Society and the American Philosophical Society, respectively. The Royal Geographical Society conferred the Victoria Gold Medal upon her in 1869, and she also became a member of its Italian counterpart, the Italian Geographical Society.

Throughout her life, Mary Somerville had remained a vocal advocate for women's education. At the request of John Stuart Mill, she was the first to sign his parliamentary petition supporting women's suffrage. She noted, "Age has not abated my zeal for the emancipation of my sex from the unreasonable prejudice too prevalent in Great Britain against a literary and scientific education for women." Somerville found the situation in the United States equally disturbing. While American law had granted suffrage to the newly emancipated male slaves, of which she approved, the law still refused to grant it, as she wrote, "to the most highly educated women of the Republic."

At age 92, in 1872, Mary Somerville died peacefully in her sleep. At the time of her death, she had been rewriting an essay on quaternions. Somerville was granted her fondest wish—to grow old without any impairment of her mental faculties. Shortly before her death, she wrote poignantly:

The short time I have to live naturally occupies my thoughts. In the blessed hope of meeting again with my beloved children, and those who were and are dear to me on earth, I think of death with composure and perfect confidence in the mercy of God…. We are told of the infinite glories of that state (heaven), and I believe in them, though it is incomprehensible to us; but as I do comprehend, in some degree at least, the exquisite loveliness of the visible world, I confess I shall be sorry to leave it. I shall regret the sky, the sea, with all the changes of their beautiful colouring; the earth, with its verdure and the flowers: but far more shall I grieve to leave animals who have followed our steps affectionately for years, without knowing for certainty their ultimate fate, though I firmly believe that the living principle is never extinguished.

Upon her death, Mary Somerville willed her library to Ladies' College at Hitchin, now Girton College, Cambridge. In 1879, Oxford University created Somerville College in her honor. As well, the Mary Somerville scholarship for women in mathematics was established at Oxford.

No aspect of mathematics was beyond Mary Somerville's grasp. However, her overriding passion for all aspects of science permeates her work. She saw in science a beauty and logic which were a parallel of the natural world. One can only speculate about the results had Somerville received an education earlier in life. Certainly her most productive years as a scientist were severely undercut by lack of opportunity. Like so many contemporary women, Mary Somerville was largely excluded from the traditional scientific world.

Her writings were comprehensive and comprehensible, yet authoritative enough to be relied upon by professional scientists. Her early difficulties in acquiring an education encouraged Somerville to write accessibly about science, free of complex formulas and jargon. Her democratic attitude toward scientific writing was her greatest asset, and her ability to popularize science earned her unparalleled popularity, as well as a reputation for thoroughness of intellect and depth of understanding.


Alic, Margaret. Hypatia's Heritage. London: Women's Press, 1986.

Eves, Howard. In Mathematical Circles. Boston, MA: Prindle, Weber and Schmidt, 1969.

Mozan, H.J. Women in Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1974.

Patterson, Elizabeth C. Mary Somerville and the Cultivation of Science, 1815–1840. Dordrecht, Holland: Martinus Nijhoff, 1983.

Somerville, Martha. Personal Recollections of Mary Somerville. Boston, MA: Roberts Brothers, 1874 (during the last few years of her life, Mary Somerville noted down some memoirs which were published by her daughter Martha).

Tabor, Margaret E. Pioneer Women. London: Sheldon Press, 1933.

suggested reading:

Patterson, Elizabeth C. Mary Somerville, 1780–1872. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Hugh A. Stewart , M.A., University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada