Mary Somerville: the Queen of 19th-Century Science

Mary Somerville
Mary Fairfax Somerville, 19th-century scientist and science writer. Public domain.

Mary Fairfax Somerville was a noted scientist and science writer who spent her career studying the stars and writing about what she found. She was born in Scotland to a well-to-do family on December 26, 1780 Mary Fairfax. Although her brothers received an education, Mary's parents saw no need to educate their daughters. Her mother taught her to read, but no one felt she needed to learn to write. About the age of ten, she was sent to Miss Primrose's boarding school for girls in Musselburg to learn the niceties of being a lady, but spent only one year there, neither happy nor learning. On her return she said she felt "like a wild animal escaped out of a cage."

Making Herself a Scientist and Writer

When she was thirteen, Mary and her family began spending winters in Edinburgh. There, Mary continued to learn the skills of a lady, even as she continued her own self-study in a variety of subjects. She learned needlework and piano while studying painting with the artist Alexander Nasmyth. This proved to be a boon to her education when she overheard Nasmyth telling another student that not only did Euclid's Elements form the basis for understanding perspective in painting, but that it was also the basis for understanding astronomy and other sciences. Mary immediately began to study from Elements. With the help of her younger brother's tutor, she began her study of higher mathematics.

Life Changes

In 1804, at the age of 24, Mary was wed to Samuel Greig, who, like her father, was a naval officer. He was also distantly related, being the son of a nephew of her maternal grandmother. She moved to London and bore him three children, but was unhappy that he discouraged her continued education. Three years into the marriage, Samuel Greig died and Mary returned to Scotland with her children. By this time, she had developed a group of friends who all encouraged her studies. It all paid off when she received a silver medal for her solution to a mathematical problem set in the Mathematical Repository.

In 1812 she wed William Somerville who was the son of her aunt Martha and Thomas Somerville in whose home she had been born. William was interested in science and supported of his wife's desire to study. They maintained a close circle of friends who were also interested in education and the sciences.

William Somerville was appointed as Inspector to the Army Medical Board and moved his family to London. He was also elected to the Royal Society and he and Mary were active in the scientific circles of the day, socializing with friends such as George Airy, John Herschel, his father William Herschel, George Peacock, and Charles Babbage. They also entertained visiting European scientists as well as touring the continent themselves, becoming acquainted with LaPlace, Poisson, Poinsot, Emile Mathieu, and many others.

Publication and Further Study

Mary eventually published her first paper "The magnetic properties of the violet rays of the solar spectrum" in the Proceedings of the Royal Society in 1826. She followed that up with her translation of Laplace's Mécanique Céleste the following year. Not satisfied with simply translating the work, however, Mary explained in detail the mathematics used by Laplace.The work was then published as The Mechanism of the Heavens. It was an instant success. Her next book, The Connection of the Physical Sciences was published in 1834.

Due to her clear writing and scholarly accomplishment, Mary was elected to the Royal Astronomical Society in 1835 (at the same time as Caroline Herschel). She was also elected to honorary membership of the Société de Physique et d'Histoire Naturelle de Genève in 1834 and, in the same year, to the Royal Irish Academy. 

Mary Somerville continued to study and write about science through the rest of her life. After the death of her second husband, she moved to Italy, where she spent most of the rest of her life. In 1848, she published her most influential work, Physical Geography, which was used until the beginning of the 20th century in schools and universities. Her last book was Molecular and Microscopic Science, published in 1869. She penned her autobiography, published two years after her death in 1872, gave insight into the life of a remarkable woman who flourrished in science despite the social conventions of her time.

Edited and updated by Carolyn Collins Petersen.