Mary Somerville was born in Scotland on Dec. 26, 1780, and had four supreme passions in her life: her family, equality for women, science, and birds.
Described as feminine in manner and appearance, as a girl she never cared for dolls. Her mother said she would have been content if Mary had “only learnt to write well and keep accounts which was all that a woman was expected to know.” Mary, however, had a talent for mathematics. She taught herself by listening in on her brother as he was tutored in geometry and by reading Euclid.
After raising four children to adulthood, Mary began publishing scientific papers at the age of forty-five but soon turned to her real passion, illuminating the world of science with her prose.
One of Mary’s early achievements (completed when she was fifty) was to translate the mathematical treatise of Laplace into English, reading through the formulas and transcribing them more easily than if they were poetry. Her genius shone through when she substituted her own calculations for his, for hers were clearer than the original. This book, The Mechanism of the Heavens, helped bring British mathematics up to par with that of the rest of Europe and lead to her admittance as one of the first women to become a member of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Her subsequent years were spent bringing the joy of science and its discoveries to the public. She wrote what might today be considered a textbook, On the Connexion of Physical Sciences, which compiled theories of physics and chemistry of the day—including the very new sciences of electricity and magnetism with what was known about astronomy, heat, and light. Her observations lead to the discovery of the planet Neptune.
She then wrote Physical Geography, which included ideas about the evolution of the earth, geology, meteorology, climatology, along with descriptions of plants, animals, and the various people of the planet. For this, she was given the Victoria Medal of the Royal Geographical Society when she was 88 years old. Although Mary couldn’t be a member of the prestigious Royal Society because she was a woman, the members commissioned a bust of her to be placed in its chambers.
She lost the love of her life and her fervent champion, her husband William Somerville, when she was eighty. To fill the void, she wrote a book about the recent advances in chemistry and biology, Molecular and Microscopic Science. Like many scientists of her day, Mary saw science as God’s handiwork, and her ability to translate it into understandable terms advanced the reputation of the discipline.
Besides her passion for science writing, Mary loved her family and enthusiastically kept pet birds. She was a staunch advocate for women’s rights.
At the age of 89 she wrote, “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.”
Mary is a brilliant example of a woman whose life and fame coalesced as she became older. Somerville College, a part of Oxford University and originally a women’s college is named in her honor, as are a lunar crater, an asteroid belt, and a Canadian island. She was recently selected to appear on the Scottish ten-pound note.
Written for Sheroes of History by Catherine Haustein. Catherine blogs at catherinehaustein.com , tweets as @hausteinc1, and is the author of the science-romance novel Natural Attraction.
Find out more…
There are a couple of in depth biographies you can read if you want to know more about Mary Somerville’s life. Mary Somerville: Science, Illumination and the Female Mind and Mary Somerville: And the World of Science are a couple.
You can of course also read Mary’s own texts. Some are availble to read for free online (linked to in the text above), some you can get in printed or e-book format.
This page from the University of St Andrews has lots of information about Mary’s life.