Fast Facts: Mary Somerville
- Known For: Scientific work in mathematics, astronomy and geography, and gifted science writing
- Born: December 26, 1780 in Jedburgh, Scotland
- Parents: William George Fairfax and Margaret Charters Fairfax
- Died: November 29, 1872 in Naples, Italy
- Education: One year of formal education, but Somerville was primarily home-schooled and self-taught
- Published Works: Physical Geography (1848), Personal Recollections of Mary Somerville (1873, after her death)
- Spouse(s): Samuel Greig (m. 1804–1807); William Somerville (m. 1812–1860)
- Awards: Honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society (1833), gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society (1869), elected to the American Philosophical Society (1869)
- Children: Two sons with Grieg (one survived to adulthood, barrister Woronzow Grieg, d. 1865), three daughters (Margaret (1813–1823), Martha (1815), Mary Charlotte (1817) and a son who died in infancy in 1815) with Somerville
Mary Somerville was born Mary Fairfax in Jedburgh, Scotland, on December 26, 1780, the fifth of seven children of Vice-Admiral Sir William George Fairfax and Margaret Charters Fairfax. Only two of her brothers survived to adulthood and her father was away at sea, so Mary spent her first years in the small town of Burntisland being home-schooled by her mother. When her father returned from the sea, he discovered 8- or 9-year-old Mary could neither read nor do simple sums. He sent her to an elite boarding school, Miss Primrose’s School in Musselburgh.
Miss Primrose was not a good experience for Mary and she was sent home in just a year. She began to educate herself, taking music and painting lessons, instructions in handwriting and arithmetic. She learned to read French, Latin, and Greek largely on her own. At age 15, Mary noticed some algebraic formulas used as decoration in a fashion magazine, and on her own she began to study algebra to make sense of them. She surreptitiously obtained a copy of Euclid’s “Elements of Geometry” over her parents’ opposition.
Marriage and Family Life
In 1804 Mary Fairfax married—under pressure from family—her cousin, Captain Samuel Greig, a Russian navy officer who lived in London. They had two sons, only one of whom survived to adulthood, future barrister Woronzow Grieg. Samuel also opposed Mary’s studying mathematics and science, but after his death in 1807—followed by the death of their son—she found herself with the opportunity and financial resources to pursue her mathematical interests.
She returned to Scotland with Woronzow 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. Somerville was the head of the army medical department in London and he warmly supported her study, writing, and contact with scientists.
Four years after marrying, Mary Somerville and her family moved to London. Their social circle included the leading scientific and literary lights of the day, including Ada Bryon and her mother Maria Edgeworth, George Airy, John and William Herschel, George Peacock, and Charles Babbage. Mary and William had three daughters (Margaret, 1813–1823; Martha, born 1815, and Mary Charlotte, born 1817), and a son who died in infancy. They also traveled extensively in Europe.
In 1826, Somerville began publishing papers on scientific subjects based on her own research. After 1831, she began writing about the ideas and work of other scientists as well. One book, “The Connection of the Physical Sciences,” contained discussion of a hypothetical planet that might be affecting the orbit of Uranus. That 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: that same year, British prime minister Robert Peel awarded her a civil pension of 200 pounds annually. In 1833, Somerville and Caroline Herschel were named honorary members of the Royal Astronomical Society, the first time women had earned that recognition. Prime Minister Melbourne increased her salary to 300 pounds in 1837. William Somerville’s health deteriorated and in 1838 the couple moved to Naples, Italy. She stayed there most of the remainder of her life, working and publishing.
In 1848, Mary Somerville published “Physical Geography,” a book used for 50 years in schools and universities; although at the same time, it attracted a sermon against it in York Cathedral.
William 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.
By 1871, Mary Somerville had outlived her husbands, a daughter, and all of her sons: she wrote, “Few of my early friends now remain—I am nearly left alone.” Mary Somerville died in Naples on November 29, 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 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.
- 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”—the first book in England on Earth’s physical surface, widely used as a textbook at schools and universities for 50 years.
- 1869: “On Molecular and Microscopic Science”—about physics and chemistry.
Major Awards and Honors
- One of the first two women admitted to the Royal Astronomical Society (the other was Caroline Herschel).
- Somerville College, Oxford University, is named for her.
- Dubbed “Queen of Nineteenth-Century Science” by a newspaper on her death.
- Organizational Affiliations: Somerville College, Oxford University, Royal Astronomical Society, Royal Geographical Society, American Philosophical Society.
- Neeley, Kathryn and Mary Somerville. Mary Somerville: Science, Illumination and the Female Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
- Somerville, Martha. “Personal Recollections, from Early Life to Old Age of Mary Somerville, with Selections from her Correspondence.” Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1874.
- O’Connor, J. J. and E. F. Robertson. “Mary Fairfax Greig Somerville.” School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St Andrews, Scotland, 1999.
- Patterson, Elizabeth Chambers. “Mary Somerville and the Cultivation of Science, 1815–1840.” Springer, Dordrecht, 1983.
Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, August 26). Biography of Mary Somerville, Mathematician, Scientist, and Writer. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/mary-somerville-biography-3530354