Mary Somerville: Polymath and pioneer

Mary Somerville [Fairfax]. Lithograph after J. Phillips. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Mary Somerville [Fairfax]. Lithograph after J. Phillips. Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Mary Somerville [Fairfax]. Lithograph after J. Phillips. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.  CC BY 4.0

Guest post by the Royal Astronomical Society, Platinum Sponsor of Ada Lovelace Day Live 2016.

Continuing with their series of articles on early women members of the Royal Astronomical Society published in Astronomy and Geophysics, Allan Chapman looks at the life and work of Mary Somerville, one of the first honorary members of the Royal Astronomical society.

Mary Somerville’s scientific interests were many and varied – and her success in pursuing them over a long life especially notable for a woman in the nineteenth century. She was fascinated by electromagnetism, wrote treatises on astronomy and geophysics, studied the physics of photography and the chemistry of plants, and produced articles and books aimed at both the scientific and more popular audience. Underpinning everything was her deep understanding of and profound belief in the mathematical foundations of the universe, something that had first been sparked by an encounter with an algebraic puzzle in a fashion magazine.

Mary’s upbringing was unconventional. The daughter of a naval captain who was absent for most of her childhood, she was not sent away to school, but allowed to run wild at home and learn as she wished; her father, upon his return, described her as a little ‘savage’.  Mary was later schooled in the accomplishments expected of a woman of her time, but continued to teach herself mathematics, aided by her brother and her father’s books on navigation. Worried about the effects of scientific learning on her sanity (and social standing), her parents limited her access to books, and Mary’s first husband, Captain Samuel Grieg, openly disapproved of her scientific interests. None of this dissuaded Mary, and when Grieg died, leaving her a widow of independent means, she began her scientific studies in earnest.

Mary’s second marriage, to Dr William Somerville, opened up a world of opportunity for her. Somerville, himself a renowned and well-travelled doctor, was proud of Mary’s work, and did everything he could to aid her scientific pursuits. With his support she immersed herself in the scientific community, gaining fame via her conversations and letters, before publishing her first scientific paper in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions in 1826. She went on to write four significant and respected scientific books, was one of the first two female Honorary Members of the Royal Astronomical Society, alongside Caroline Herschel; in 1879 Somerville College, Oxford was named in her honour.

You can read more about Mary Somerville on the Astronomy and Geophysics website, and there’s an excerpt from Dr Karen Masters’ chapter about her from the ALD book, More Passion for Science.

Chapman, A. (2016), “Mary Somerville: pioneering pragmatist”, Astronomy & Geophysics, 57(2) 2.10-2.12.

Posted in Women in STEM.