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Summary Article: Somerville, Mary Greig
from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Scottish scientific writer who produced several widely used textbooks, despite having just one year of formal education. Somerville College, Oxford, is named after her.

Her main works were Mechanism of the Heavens (1831), a translation of French astronomer Pierre Laplace's treatise on celestial mechanics; The Connexion of Physical Sciences (1834); Physical Geography (1848); and On Molecular and Microscopic Science (1869).

Somerville was born in Jedburgh, Scotland. She was the daughter of Vice-Admiral William Fairfax. Until the age of ten she received no formal education, being taught only to read and write by her mother at home. This was in accordance with general social attitudes of the time, which considered that women did not need to be properly educated to fulfil their future role as wife and mother. At ten, however, she was sent to a girl's boarding school in Musselburgh, where she stayed for a year before returning home from what she later described as a ‘cage’.

She continued to educate herself by reading any books that were in her parents' home, although family members opposed this ‘unladylike’ activity. She was taught Latin by an uncle in Jedburgh, and also learnt to play the piano and paint in Edinburgh. She was introduced to mathematics, the field that was to dominate her adult life, when she read and learned Euclid's Elements of Geometry at the age of 14. Somerville had been told by her tutor Alexander Nasmyth that Euclid's book was the basis for understanding astronomy, perspective, and mechanical science. She became obsessed with the subject, spending hours every day working on algebra, despite the opposition of her parents.

By her early twenties, and through her own effort, Somerville was highly skilled in complex mathematics. However, she was forced to abandon her work in 1804 when she married Samuel Greig, who disapproved of her studies, only resuming them on his death in 1807. She returned to Edinburgh with her two young children, where she was soon involved in the scientific life of Edinburgh and where she came into contact with John Playfair, professor of natural philosophy at Edinburgh University. She also carried on a written correspondence with William Wallace, professor of mathematics at the Royal Military College.

In 1812 she married her cousin William Somerville, who positively encouraged her work. He too was interested in the fields of science and mathematics, and the Somervilles were soon involved with the leading figures of Edinburgh's scientific elite, including John Playfair, William Scott, and David Brewster. Mary Somerville continued to study the advanced mathematical texts, along with botany, geology, and Greek.

In 1816 William Somerville was appointed inspector to the Army Medical Board, and the Somervilles moved to London. He was elected to membership of the Royal Society, and the couple began to associate with eminent figures in science and mathematics in London, including John Herschel, William Herschel, and Charles Babbage. Mary and William Somerville travelled to Paris in 1817 and met with leading French scientists and mathematicians, such as Francois Arago, Pierre Laplace, and Émile Mathieu.

In 1826 Somerville published her first paper, ‘The Magnetic Properties of the Violet Rays of the Solar Spectrum’. She presented it to the Royal Society, where she received positive responses and gained a reputation as a great scientist. In 1827 she was asked to produce an English translation of Laplace's complex Traité de méchanique céleste (1799–1825). She enhanced her version, published in 1831 as The Mechanisms of the Heavens, with illustrations and explanations that made the book more accessible to students, sealing her reputation as a great mind and writer of the 19th century. In 1834 she published The Connection of the Physical Sciences, and in a revision of this work in 1842 she suggested the existence of a new planet outside of Uranus. Her theory was proved by the work of Johan Galle and Heinrich d'Arrest in 1846, when they located Neptune.

In 1834 Mary Somerville was given honorary membership of the Société de Physique et d'Histoire Naturelle de Genève, and became an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy in the same year. In 1835 she became one of the first two women to be accepted as a member of the Royal Astronomical Society in London. She was also given a government pension of £200 a year. Mary Somerville had achieved what no woman had done before; she was fully recognized as a brilliant intellect in her own right.

In 1838 the Somervilles moved to Italy to protect William's health. Mary Somerville continued to work on science and mathematics, writing Physical Geography in 1848. In 1857 she was made a member of the American Geographical and Statistical Society. She used her fame to support the causes of women's education and to promote the right for women to vote. In recognition of her support for women's education, a new women's college at Oxford University was named Somerville College. She died in Naples, Italy, in 1872.

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

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