Mary Somerville

Pioneer Woman Mathematician and Scientist

Mary Somerville
Mary Somerville. Stock Montage/Getty Images

Known for:

  • one of the first two women admitted to the Royal Astronomical Society
  • Somerville College, Oxford University, is named for her
  • dubbed "Queen of Nineteenth Century Science" by a newspaper on her death

Dates: December 26, 1780 - November 29, 1872

Occupation: mathematician, scientist, astronomer, geographer

More About Mary Somerville

Mary Fairfax, born in Jedburgh, Scotland, as the fifth of seven children of Vice-Admiral Sir William George Fairfax and Margaret Charters Fairfax, preferred the outdoors to reading. She did not have a good experience when sent to an elite boarding school, and was sent home in just a year.

At age 15 Mary noticed some algebraic formulas used as decoration in a fashion magazine, and on her own began to study algebra to make sense of them. She surreptitiously obtained a copy of Euclid's Elements of Geometry over her parents' opposition.

In 1804 Mary Fairfax married -- under pressure from family -- her cousin, Captain Samuel Greig. They had two sons. He too opposed Mary's studying mathematics and science, but after his death in 1807 -- followed by the death of one of their sons -- she found herself able to be financially independent. She returned to Scotland with her other son and began to study astronomy and mathematics seriously.   On the advice of William Wallace, a mathematics teacher at a military college, she acquired a library of books on mathematics. She began solving math problems posed by a mathematics journal, and in 1811 won a medal for a solution she submitted.

She married Dr. William Somerville in 1812, another cousin. A surgeon, Dr. Somerville supported her study, writing and contact with scientists. They had three daughters and a son.

Four years after this marriage Mary Somerville and her family moved to London. They also traveled extensively in Europe. Mary Somerville began publishing papers on scientific subjects in 1826, using her own research, and after 1831, she began writing about the ideas and work of other scientists, too. One book prompted John Couch Adams to search for the planet Neptune, for which is he is credited as a co-discoverer.

Mary Somerville's translation and expansion of Pierre Laplace's Celestial Mechanics in 1831 won her acclaim and success. In 1833 Mary Somerville and Caroline Herschel were named honorary members of the Royal Astronomical Society, the first time women had won that recognition. Mary Somerville moved to Italy for her husband's health in 1838, and there she continued to work and to publish.

In 1848, Mary Somerville published Physical Geography.  This book was used for fifty years in schools and universities, though it also attracted a sermon against it in York Cathedral.

Dr. Somerville died in 1860. In 1869, Mary Somerville published yet another major work, was awarded a gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society, and was elected to the American Philosophical Society.

She had outlived her husbands and her sons and wrote, in 1871, "Few of my early friends now remain -- I am nearly left alone." Mary Somerville died in Naples in 1872, just before turning 92. She had been working on another mathematical article at the time, and regularly read about higher algebra and solved problems to being each day.

Her daughter published Personal Recollections of Mary Somerville the next year, parts of a work which Mary Somerville had completed most of before her death.

Significant writings by Mary Somerville:

  • 1831 (first book) - The Mechanism of the Heavens - translating and explaining Pierre Laplace's celestial mechanics
  • 1834 - On the Connection of the Physical Sciences - this book continued in new editions through 1877
  • 1848 - Physical Geography - first book in England on Earth's physical surface
  • 1869 - On Molecular and Microscopic Science - about physics and chemistry

Also on this site

Print Bibliography

  • Neeley, Kathryn and Mary Somerville. Mary Somerville: Science, Illumination and the Female Mind. 2001.
  • Somerville, Mary and Martha Somerville. Personal Recollections: From Early Life to Old Age. 1996.
  • Patterson, Elizabeth C. Mary Somerville and the Cultivation of Science, 1815-1848. 1983.

About Mary Somerville

  • Organizational Affiliations: Somerville College, Oxford University, Royal Astronomical Society, Royal Geographical Society, American Philosophical Society
  • Places: Jedburgh, Scotland, London, England, Naples, Italy
  • Period: 18th century, 19th century

Text copyright © Jone Johnson Lewis.