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Mary Somerville

From Women in European History

by Kathleen Beilsmith

Mary Somerville: Queen of Nineteenth Century Science

December 26, 1780 - November 29, 1872




An obituary notice in London's Morning Post in 1872 described Mary Fairfax Somerville as the "Queen of Nineteenth Century Science."[1] The title was appropriate-- although she conducted few scientific investigations herself, Somerville frequently discoursed with authors of the most advanced works of mathematics, physical science, and geography of her time, and published several well-reputed books concerning these disciplines herself. Her writing played an important part in the efforts of organizations such as the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge to produce affordable and readable texts on scientific topics for an increasingly literate and educated population, a reflection of the increasing focus on science and industry and their impact on everyday life which occurred during the nineteenth century. Yet her success as an author was only possible because of the persistence she exhibited throughout her youth and early adult life as she pursued the study of mathematics and astronomy despite the limited scope of her formal education due to prejudices about women’s fitness for academia.

Youth and Education


Mary Somerville's success in the study of mathematics and astronomy was somewhat unique because, unlike her female contemporary Caroline Herschel (sister of astronomer John Herschel), Somerville was not exposed to or encouraged in her studies by an immediate family member. Her father, Admiral Sir William Fairfax, began working as a midshipman at the age of ten and was never formally educated, although she notes in her autobiography that he had a library and enjoyed reading histories.[2] Somerville's mother, a daughter of the Scottish Solicitor of Customs, had "a great strength of expression in writing" but seldom read outside of the Bible, sermons, or newspapers. [3] Since her father was constantly employed at sea Somerville's earliest lessons came primarily from her mother, who taught her the catechism of the Kirk of Scotland and how to read the Bible.[4] When she was seven or eight she learned how to be "useful"-- that is, to preserve fruit, shell peas and beans, feed poultry, care for the family's cow, and perform various other chores reserved for the women of the household. [5] Otherwise left to herself, Somerville amused herself in the family's garden or reading Arabian Nights or Robinson Crusoe. [6] Since none of her family studied natural history or the physical sciences she had no exposure to those subjects, nor did she know of the existence of higher mathematics until she was a young lady.[7] She later wrote that this isolation from academic resources left her very "sad and forlorn" along the path of her studies, for she had no one to help or guide her.[8]

Somerville's early education was also hindered by prejudices about women’s abilities which affected the quality of education provided to girls in Scotland. She was raised in Burntisland, a small seaport, of which she says "the manners and customs...were exceedingly primitive".[9] Into this small town the Enlightenment's emphasis on reason had not yet fully permeated and some still believed women capable of witchcraft.[10] Yet even where the Enlightenment cleared away old superstitions it left new prejudices-- while some philosophers argued it was "well established that men and women have the same nature and the same constitution... susceptible to the same faults, the same virtues, and the same vices,"[11] others concluded that women were inherently inferior to men and that while one sex was destined to be active and strong the other must remain passive and weak. [12] The latter view provided the basis for two prejudices which worked against Somerville's education: 1) The belief that since a woman's place was as an Angel in the House[13] she need only be educated to the extent that she could perform her household duties, and 2) The belief that higher thinking was not only unnecessary but inappropriate for women because of their delicate constitutions.

The first of these prejudices affected Somerville's formal schooling. When she was ten years old she was sent to a local boarding school at her father's request, for he had arrived home to find her a "savage."[14] There she encountered an "extremely tedious and inefficient" method of teaching in which her main exercise was to commit to memory pages of the dictionary.[15] Somerville, who claimed a poor memory [16], did not fare well under this form of tutelage and arrived home still unable to write. When her mother discovered this she complained that she would have been "contented if [Somerville] had only learnt to write well and keep accounts, which was all that a woman was expected to know."[17] The boarding school's teaching methods can be excused since the same techniques of rote memorization were used in educating boys, however the limitations placed upon the scope of Somerville's earliest education were clearly the result of views that women only needed to run a household and thus should only receive an education in arithmetic and basic writing skills. At this time Somerville also received some lessons on winter evenings from the village schoolmaster, although the subjects he normally taught to the boys at the school (Latin and navigation) were "out of the question"[18] for Somerville. While her brother Sam went to live in Edinburgh with their grandfather so that he could attend the University[19], Somerville's later schooling was restricted to instruction in writing and arithmatic, as well as the musical skills thought fit for her sex.[20]

Somerville defied these restrictions by taking it upon herself to further her education. After reading Hester Mulso Chapone's Letters on the Improvement of the Mind, Addressed to a Young Lady[21] she pursued the course of reading recommended therein. She read Shakespeare in the spare time she found after attending to household duties[22] and unknowingly prepared herself for her future studies of astronomy , botany, and geography by spending many hours studying the stars [23], collecting fossils and eggs, and learning the trivial names of all the flora surrounding her home. [24] After returning from the restraint of the boarding school she was "like a wild animal escaped out of a cage";[25] her curiosity ran along the beaches where she played and explored, unrestrained by ideas about which subjects were fit for girls to learn. These endeavors, however, brought her to face the second prejudice mentioned above, which manifested itself in members of her own family. Her Aunt Janet "greatly disapproved" of her reading and prompted Somerville's mother to encourage her instead in needlepoint. [26] Her father said to her mother of Somerville's studies "we must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a straight-jacket one of these days." [27] He ordered the family's servants not to give her a candle to read by after bedtime, for he subscribed to the idea that women's minds were too frail for academic pursuits. [28] Instead of indulging her curiosity about science, Somerville attended schools for dancing and drawing.[29] She remembers in her autobiography that she was not well liked by several family members at this time in her life because she was "reserved and inexpensive, in consequence of the silence I was obliged to observe on the subjects which interested me" [30], and she describes being quite lonely.

Somerville was also perturbed by these prejudices because she thought it "unjust that women should have been given a desire for knowledge if it were wrong to acquire it." [31]. She writes that she "was intensely ambitious to excel in something, for I felt in my own breast that women were capable of taking a higher place in creation than that assigned to them in my early days, which was very low."[32] She finally found a source of support for her ambitions in an uncle, Dr. Somerville, who taught her Latin and helped her read Virgil when she spent a summer at his home.[33] Dr. Somerville was free of the prejudice that the rest of Somerville's family held about women and serious study, and his encouragement gave her confidence in her unorthodox pursuits.

Somerville's early struggles to educate herself reveal not only gender inequalities in eighteenth and nineteenth century education but also that perceptions of scientific study during this time were skewed by gender. As Ruth Watts notes in her 2003 article Science and Women in the History of Education: Expanding the Archive[34], the history of science has often been restricted to a history of great men in science. Watts argues that it was the "acetic, almost religious" aspects of the demanding disciplines which resulted in the exclusion of women like Somerville. Women were thought too mentally frail for the demands of scientific study just as they were thought too spiritually weak for the requirements of a life devoted to religion. Watts' argument fails to account for the support that women like Somerville often received from the predominantly male academic community, but she concludes that biographies of the women who first participated in what, for a time, was considered a decidedly masculine study--biographies like Mary Somerville's-- are the best sources for examination of gender, science, and education throughout history.[35]

Algebra and Early Adulthood


Somerville was attending a tea party with her mother in 1793 when another young woman invited her to step aside and view a monthly magazine for ladies with prints of dresses, charades, and puzzles. One of the puzzles, she writes in her autobiography, had "strange looking lines mixed with letters, chiefly X'es and Y's."[36] Upon asking what the characters meant, she was told "Algebra," but her companion knew no more of the mysterious arithmetic. Somerville's ever-present curiosity prompted her to find out. She first consulted books on navigation and astronomy for illumination, but was soon thwarted by her lack of a legitimate mathematical text. To procure the necessary texts would not be easy-- "as for going to a bookseller and asking for Euclid the thing was impossible" [37]-- but Somerville demonstrated her characteristic persistence in the matter. By feigning an interest in learning to draw (an appropriately feminine pursuit) from a family friend, Somerville gained books on algebra and geometry so as to improve her knowledge of perspective... but only for the purposes of painting, naturally. [38] Her direct study of geometry was still inhibited by her father's dislike of her serious studies.

Thereafter Somerville spent a good deal of time studying Euclid in addition to practicing the piano, painting, and doing various household chores. With her efforts spread so thin and disapproving relatives looking over her shoulder, she "had not the means of pursuing any one [study] as far as I could wish." [39] Her pursuit of mathematics became even more difficult after she married her cousin Samuel Greig at the age of twenty-four, for she had her own house and soon two sons to keep, and her husband, although not directly antagonistic to her studies, shared her family's low opinion of them. The marriage was not a long one, for Greig died in 1807. While the loss of her husband and soon after her youngest son was emotionally difficult, the independence Somerville gained as a widow finally allowed her leisure for her studies:

"I had now the means, and pursued my studies with increased assiduity; concealment was no longer possible, nor was it attempted. I was considered eccentric and foolish, and my conduct was highly disapproved of by many, especially by some members of my own family, as will be seen hereafter. They expected me to entertain and keep a gay house for them, and in that way they were disappointed. As I was quite independent, I did not care for their criticism."[40]

Widowhood often conferred greater social freedom (the ability to attend gatherings without chaperons, for example) and more control over household finances to women. For Somerville, it meant she now possessed the resources and the time (outside of teaching her son, of course) to pursue her studies fully. She consulted with mathematician William Wallace at the University of Edinburgh and assembled a library of all the important works in mathematics and astronomy at the time-- Fergusson, Newton, LaCroix, Euler, La Grange, and many more. She began solving the problems posed in mathematical journals and comparing her answers with Wallace's, and in 1811 won a prize for her solution to a problem in The Mathematical Repository.[41] This journal, which aimed to "conduct beginners to the more difficult properties of numbers" (see picture) is an excellent example of a class of publications which were becoming increasingly popular during Somerville's lifetime: journals and books written for a general reading public with an interest in higher mathematics, science, or philosophy, but not necessarily possessing a university background. The demand for such publications rose with increasing literacy and efforts by progressive organizations to make educational materials more accessible.

In 1812 Somerville married another cousin, William Somerville, an army doctor who was supportive of her studies and defended her against criticism from his family, in particular a younger sister who wished her to give up her "foolish manner of life and studies, and make a respectable and useful wife." [42] Together, William and Mary studied geology, collected minerals, traveled, and began a family. It was through William that she received the request which would begin her career as an author.

Her Writing


In 1826 Somerville conducted and published a study on magnetism in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London titled "On the Magnetizing Power of the More Refrangible Solar Rays".[43] Her experimental setup included, of all things, a needle-- though her Aunt Janet would probably not have been pleased to see her applying her needle in such a way. The paper and her later writing earned her admission into the Royal Society in 1835 (she was one of the first women admitted, along with Caroline Herschel). While the Royal Society had at no point been officially closed to learned women, the entry of Herschel and Somerville was a rarity, given that the inequalities in education discussed earlier prevented most women from attaining the level of expertise needed to conduct novel studies in a field.

After Somerville published her study, her husband received a letter from Lord Brougham, of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, commissioning an account of Laplace's Mecanique Celeste:

"The kind of thing wanted is such a description of that divine work as will both explain to the unlearned the sort of thing it is-- the plan, the vast merit, the wonderful truths unfolded or methodized--and the calculus by which all this is accomplished, and will also give a somewhat deeper insight to the uninitiated." [44]

Somerville spent much of the next four to five years (1827-1831) writing the commissioned piece. She had studied the Mecanique Celeste in detail with John Wallace, Professor Wallace's son, but remained self-conscious about her understanding given that she had navigated the work herself and not in a university setting. Gradually her hesitance wore away as she began to work hours of writing into the daily routine of schooling her children, visiting with friends, and keeping her house. When it was complete, her manuscript, The Mechanism of the Heavens, was sent to Sir John Herschel, who praised it greatly. His only suggestion was that she explain the calculus at the beginning more thoroughly to accommodate readers not as proficient in mathematics as she was. [45]

Somerville's work was extremely popular, especially among students at Cambridge. [46] It did not quite fit the description Lord Brougham had given of what was desired-- only the introduction of Mechanism of the Heavens was intelligible to a general audience-- but it did become a reputable and appreciated reference for students. Her writing set down important scientific advancements with clarity and precision in English rather than algebra and calculus. She continued writing after this initial success, claiming she couldn't stand to be idle, and published On the Connection of the Physical Sciences in in 1846, Physical Geography in 1848, and Molecular and Microscopic Science in 1860.

Somerville's writing was appealing to her studious and eager audience because of her "simple, direct, and uncolored" style of writing and her ability to present all possible explanations for a natural occurrence, her clear discussion of contemporary hypotheses, and her ability to rely heavily on experimental evidence without letting her prose devolve into a lab manual.[47] In her paper "Mary Somerville" in the British Journal for the History of Science in 2010, Elizabeth Patterson notes Somerville's gift for organizing large volumes of specialized information as the key to her success.

To some, this "gift" was a unique skill that women brought to the field. William Whewell, a contemporary of Somerville, contended that women possessed a special gift for synthesizing larger pictures of nature from narrow observations of the world, according to Kathryn Neeley in her book Mary Somerville: Science, Illumination, and the Female Mind.[48] Although this view of women's place in science was a product of the same prejudices that delayed Somerville's early education (specifically the idea that women's minds were inherently at least different, if not inferior, to men's), Whewell's admiration of her gift for synthesis is certainly justified. Neeley describes how this "gift" attributed to Somerville by Whewell allowed her to write works of great complexity without sacrificing clarity, to bring scientific knowledge to a broader audience than it had ever had before, and to move people to respond to the natural world and be moved by its beauty not only as rendered in poetry but as revealed by scientific study.[49] This aspect of her writing makes Somerville part of a lager tradition of accessible scientific writing that extends into modern times through popular science magazines, books, and programs.

Somerville's extensive writing earned her the respect of the scientific community in England and also in France where she traveled between 1832 and 1833. As Patterson takes care to mention in her 1974 paper The Case of Mary Somerville: An Aspect of Nineteenth-Century Science, Somerville met with much encouragement from men in the scientific community, who were in many cases much more supportive of her studies than other women.[50] This disputes the view that women were kept out of science by antagonism from male colleagues. While such antagonism did exist, as evidenced by cases like Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958), it was not complete, and prejudices in early family life and education are probably just as much if not more blameworthy than professional prejudices for the slow introduction of women into scientific circles.


Mary Somerville's career was a unique one not only because she was a woman studying mathematics and science in the early nineteenth century but because of the changes that took place in those fields during her involvement in them. As Sara Delamont remarks in "Lives of Great Women Scientists: The Never Ending Story," science became increasingly professionalized during Somerville's lifetime so that by the end of it a woman studying from home as she did would hardly be able to gain credibility as a scientist.[51] Somerville suffered a disadvantage in her early education for being born before compulsory education was implemented, yet the independent success in scientific study which allowed her to enter the Royal Society would not likely have been possible after a standard system of study for entry into a field had been established. The works Somerville published to gain her credibility were of an important nature not only because they served the goals of the Society for Diffusing Useful Knowledge by making complex scientific topics accessible to a more general audience but because the kind of scientific writing she mastered-- clear, concise but not shallow-- is prized even today in textbooks for students and reviews in popular science publications. But what renders the story of Somerville's life truly endearing is not her accomplishments but her eager and persistent nature, which allowed her to defy institutional and family prejudices and study the fields that captured her imagination.

Additional Information

Society for the Diffusion Useful Knowledge


Personal Recollections, from Early Life to Old Age of Mary Somerville: With Selections from Her Correspondence by Martha C. Somerville

Link to Autobiography at Hathi Trust Digital Library

Annotated Bibliography

Annotated Bibliography for Mary Somerville


  1. Patterson, Elizabeth C. "The Case of Mary Somerville: An Aspect of Nineteenth-Century Science." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 118, 3:269-275. 1974
  2. Somerville, Mary. Personal Recollections, p.8
  3. Ibid, p.8
  4. Ibid, p.19
  5. Ibid, p.17
  6. Ibid, p.18-20
  7. Ibid, p.47
  8. Ibid, p.47
  9. Somerville, Mary. Personal Recollections, p.11
  10. Ibid, p.40
  11. d'Epinay, Louise. Letter to Abbe Ferdinando Galiani. Lives and Voices p. 247
  12. Rousseau. Emile. Lives and Voices p.249
  13. Patmore, Coventry. "The Angel in the House." 1854. http://victorianweb.org/authors/patmore/angel/index.html
  14. Somerville, Mary. Personal Recollections, p.20
  15. Ibid, p.22
  16. Ibid, p.29
  17. Ibid, p.25
  18. Ibid, p.29
  19. Ibid, p.14
  20. Ibid, 35
  21. Chapone, Hester M. Letters on the Improvement of the Mind, Addressed to a Young Lady,1773.
  22. Somerville, Mary. Personal Recollections, p.28
  23. Ibid, p.30
  24. Ibid, p.26
  25. Ibid, p.26
  26. Ibid, p.28
  27. Ibid, p.55
  28. Ibid, p.54
  29. Ibid, p.41
  30. Ibid, p.42
  31. Ibid, p.28
  32. Ibid, p.60
  33. Ibid, p.37
  34. Watts, Ruth. "Science and Women in the History of Education: Expanding the Archive." History of Education, 32,2:189-199. 2003
  35. Ibid
  36. Somerville, Mary. Personal Recollections, p.46
  37. Ibid, p.50
  38. Ibid, p.48
  39. Ibid, p.72
  40. Ibid, p.80
  41. Ibid, p.79
  42. Somerville, Mary. Personal Recollections, p.88
  43. On the Magnetizing Power of the More Refrangible Solar Rays. Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society of London. 116 (1826) 132-9
  44. Somerville, Mary. Personal Recollections, p.162
  45. Ibid, 161.
  46. Ibid, p. 167
  47. Patterson, Elizabeth C. "Mary Somerville." The British Journal for the History of Science. 4,4:311-339. 2010.
  48. Neeley, Kathryn A. Mary Somerville: Science, Illumination, and the Female Mind.(Prologue) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2001.
  49. Ibid
  50. Patterson, Elizabeth C. "The Case of Mary Somerville: An Aspect of Nineteenth-Century Science." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 118, 3:269-275. 1974.
  51. Delamont, Sara. "Lives of Great Women Scientists: The Never Ending Story?" Social Studies of Science. Vol. 35, No. 3 (Jun., 2005), pp. 491-496

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