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Distinguished women in science were few prior to the dawn of the 20th century. Among the most prominent was Mary Fairfax Somerville, a twice-married Scotswoman whose international reputation as a scientist was gained in the intervals of raising a family of six children. Her achievements are all the more remarkable given her lack of formal education and the context of the repressive society in which she lived, where it was unthinkable for young women to purchase books, especially on math or science. Her perseverance in pursuing scientific endeavors caused her to be publicly denounced in York Cathedral, but in the end her work earned her distinction among her colleagues.
Born on December 26, 1780, in Jedburgh, Scotland, Somerville was the daughter of a vice admiral in the British Navy. Her formal education was scant and rather haphazard, with only one year of full-time schooling at a boarding school for girls, where she was miserable. But it was there she acquired a taste for reading. She studied her first arithmetic at age 13, and discovered algebra quite by accident when she happened upon some mysterious symbols in the puzzles of a women's fashion magazine and learned they were algebraic expressions. Intrigued, she persuaded her brother's tutor to purchase someelementary literature on the subject for her.
Marriage intervened in 1804, when, at 24, she married her second cousin, Samuel Grieg, a member of the Russian Navy with little interest in math and science and a low opinion of intellectual women in general. She quickly bore him two children, but he died three years into the marriage, leaving her with a comfortable inheritance. Now financially independent, she was free to study as she pleased. She quickly mastered J. Ferguson's Astronomy and also studied Newton's Principia, gradually building up a small library of works to provide her with a sound background in mathematics. She remarried in 1812 to William Somerville, a surgeon in the British Navy who was very supportive of her intellectual endeavors. They had four children together.
Her scientific career began in earnest in the summer of 1825, when she carried out a series of experiments on magnetism, presenting a paper on her findings the following year to the Royal Society. Apart from the astronomical observations of Caroline Herschel, it was the first paper by a woman to be read to the Society and published in its Philosophical Transactions. Although the theory presented in her paper was eventually refuted by other scientists, it distinguished her as a skilled scientific writer and was favorably received by her colleagues.
In 1827 she was asked to write a popularized rendition of LaPlace's Mecanique and Newton's Principia, aimed at reaching a larger audience by communicating the concepts clearly through simple illustrations and experiments. The Mechanism of the Heavens (1831) was a tremendous success and became the most famous of her writings. Her second book, The Connection of the Physical Sciences, was published in 1834, and dealt with physical astronomy, mechanics, magnetism, electricity, heat, sound and optics. It earned her election to the Royal Astronomical Society, along with Caroline Herschel, the first women to receive such an honor.
In 1848, at age 68, she published yet another book, Physical Geography, which proved to be her most successful yet and was widely used in schools and universities for the next 50 years. She and her husband had moved to Italy in 1838 because of his deteriorating health, and he died in 1860. Somerville and her surviving daughters stayed in Italy, where she continued her scientific work, publishing Molecular and Microscopic Science in 1869, her least successful work. But she remained mentally alert and keenly interested in mathematics despite her advancing age, and was revising a paper on quanternians the day before she died peacefully at 92 in 1872. London obituaries hailed her as "the Queen of Science."
Throughout her life, Somerville felt keenly that she was not an original scientist, and, a product of her age, thought that perhaps women were not gifted with that type of creativity. But she clearly demonstrated great mathematical and scientific intelligence and had a talent for evaluating conflicting ideas, and for organizing and synthesizing knowledge in clear and accessible prose. Her first three books contributed enormously to scientific education through most of the 19th century and she acted as mentor to many young scientists, both male and female.
Somerville's significance continued after her death. A ship built in Liverpool, England bore her name and carried her image as its figurehead. An Arctic island, and a girl's college in Brisbane, Australia are also named after her, and Oxford University founded its first college for women in her honor. Somerville College played a leading role in the many battles for equality that were waged in the early 20th century, and, like Somerville, its alumnae have pioneered career opportunities in fields where women were historically excluded.
Neeley, Kathryn A. Mary Somerville: Science, Illumination and the Female Mind. Cambridge University Press, October 2001.
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