Mary Somerville, née Mary Fairfax, was born on December 26, 1780, in Jedburgh Scotland. She has been called “Queen of Nineteenth Century Science.” She was also the first English geographer. Her book “Physical Geography” (1848) was the first textbook on the subject in English and her most popular work. It was published three years after the first volume of Alexander von Humboldt’s “Cosmos”.
She had virtually no formal education but she had a very inquisitive mind. Her interest in mathematics was encouraged by her uncle, Dr. William Somerville, who later became her father in law.
In 1807, she was forced to married to Captain Samuel Greig and went to live to London. Her husband died three years later and Mary returned to Scotland and began to study astronomy and mathematics. In 1811 she won a prize for her solution to a problem in the journal “The Mathematical Repository.”
She married to her cousin William Somerville in 1812. He was an army doctor and unlike her first husband encouraged her to continuing writing and studying science. The couple moved to London where they became members of the scholarly and literary society of the time.
She was a friend of John Herschel, Charles Lyell, Alexander von Humboldt, William Buckland, Lord Henry Brougham, and Roderick and Charlotte Murchison. In her autobiography, Mary Somerville wrote about Charlotte: “Mrs Murchison was an amiable accomplished woman, drew prettily and what was rare at the time she had studied science, especially geology and it was chiefly owing to her example that her husband turned his mind to those pursuits in which he afterwards obtained such distinction.”
She presented a paper entitled “The Magnetic Properties of the Violet Rays of the Solar Spectrum” to the Royal Society in 1826.
In 1827, Lord Brougham asked her to translate La Place’s “Traité de Mécanique céleste” for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. She not only translated but she added explanations and illustrations to the text. The book was a success and became a text for young mathematicians at Trinity College.
In 1833, she and Caroline Herschel were elected honorary members of the Royal Astronomical Society, the first time women had won that recognition. Her second book, “The Connection of the Physical Sciences” was published in 1834.
At the age of sixty eight she published “Physical Geography”. The book was dedicated to her mentor John Herschel. In the first page of “Physical Geography” she explains her aim in her scientific writings by quoting Francis Bacon: “No natural phenomenon can be adequately studied in itself alone, but to be understood must be considered as it stands connected with all of nature”.
In “Physical Geography”, she included geology and the distribution of animal and vegetable life. She also sought to understand the various transformation processes involved.
She signed a petition presented to the University of London in 1862 praying that women might be allowed to sit for degree examinations, but the petition was rejected.
In 1869 she was awarded with the first gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society and published her last scientific book: Molecular and Microscopic Science. She died three years later, on November 28 in Naples, Italy.
Mary Somerville was an outstanding scientist and her scientific writings contributed to popularize science, one of the most important cultural projects of Victorian Britain.
Kathryn A. Neeley, Mary Somerville: Science, Illumination, and the Female Mind, Cambridge University Press, 2001
BUREK, C. V. & HIGGS, B. (eds) The Role of Women in the History of Geology. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 281, 1–8. DOI: 10.1144/SP281.1.
Buckland, Adelene: Novel Science : Fiction and the Invention of Nineteenth-Century Geology, University of Chicago Press, 2013.
Marie Sanderson and Mary Somerville, Mary Somerville: Her Work in Physical, Geography, Geographical Review Vol. 64, No. 3 (July 1974), pp. 410-420.