Mary Somerville

Biography of Mary Somerville Scottish self-taught Scottish scientist, astronomer and mathematician, sometimes referred to as “The Queen of the 19th century sciences“.

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Early years of this extraordinary mathematics

She was born on December 26, 1780, in Burntisland, Scotland, in the County of Fife. She lived to be 92 years old, totally lucid and eager to continue learning.

Burntisland
Burntisland landscape. Credit: Wikipedia

Her father William Fairfax was a naval officer and became vice admiral. Her mother was called Margaret Charters. Mary was the fifth of seven children, but three of them died very young.

Her two male brothers were given a good education, but the girls were barely taught to read.

However, when she was 10 years old, they sent her to a school. During the year she was there, she became passionate about reading and returned home with that hobby of reading and learning. One of her uncles encouraged her to learn Latin.

cuadro pintura
One of the pictures painted by Alexander Nasmyth, professor at Mary Somerville. Credit: Wikipedia. Sally Liddell

Mathematical training Mary Somerville

In 1793, her family moved to Edinburgh and enrolled her in a girls’ school to complete her training as a high-class lady. This teaching included sewing, piano lessons, and painting.

Her teacher of painting, the famous painter Alexander Nasmyth, while explaining the theory of perspectives to one of his students, observed the great interest of the young Mary Fairfax in Euclid’s book “Elements“.

With good judgment, he encouraged Mary to study mathematics. From that moment on, the young woman devoted herself with great interest to the study of algebra in the books provided by her brother’s tutor.

Mary somerville joven
Portrait of Mary Somerville, made by John Jackson and preserved at Somerville College, Oxford. Credit: web art.uk.org

The married life of this exceptional mathematics

Mary married in 1804, when she was 24 years old. Her husband Samuel Greig was a naval officer. They had two children, but Mr. Greig passed away in 1807 and Mary decided to return to Scotland.

In 1812, she remarried to one of her cousins, William Somerville, who was then 41 years old and belonged to an old Scottish nobility family.

William had a doctorate in medicine and had served in the Army, in Africa, Canada, and Sicily.

When he was appointed Head of the Army Medical Department in Scotland, he settled in Edinburgh.

William Somerville
William Somerville. Credit: Wikipedia

This second husband of Mary was an intelligent and educated man, who fully understood his young wife’s interest in science. Once settled in Edinburgh, encouraged by her husband, Mary expanded her circle of friends with scientists at the University; and her interest also turned to botany and geology.

In 1814, her eldest daughter and the only son from her second marriage died. In 1816, they moved to London, because her husband was appointed Inspector of the Medical Board of the Army of England and admitted as a Graduate of the Royal College of Physicians; In addition, he was elected a member of the Royal Society.

Mary Somerville’s friendship with scientists

These circumstances made it possible for the Somerville couple to become friends with leading scientists, such as: George Airy, John Herschel, William Herschel, George Peacock and Charles Babbage.

Mary Somerville was also able to come into contact with relevant European scientists visiting the Royal Society in London, such as: Biot, Arago, Laplace, Poisson, Poinsot and Émile Mathieu.

Laplace
Pierre Laplace, French astronomer, physicist and mathematician. continuator of Newton’s Mechanics. Credit: Wikipedia

In 1827, the “Society for the Dissemination of Useful Knowledge” commissioned Mary Somerville to translate the work “Celestial Mechanics” by the French astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace.

Mary Somerville did not just pass the text from French to English, but added a complete explanation of the mathematical foundations used by Laplace, which had not yet been disseminated among scientists in Great Britain, from her vintage. The translation of the book had a great sales success, and received numerous accolades.

In these years of stay in London, Lady Annabella Byron asked Mary Somerville to tutor her daughter Ada, who showed exceptional intelligence. It was the beginning of a great and lasting friendship between Mary Somerville and Ada Lovelace.

In 1832 and 1833 she resided for a time in Paris, where she strengthened her ties with French scientists, and worked on her next book, “The connection of the physical sciences“, published in 1834.

Her analysis of the disturbances of Uranus ‘orbit included in the sixth edition of the book (1842), is the origin of the astronomer John Adams’ research that led to the discovery of Neptune in 1846.

A great woman passionate about astronomy

Mary Somerville was one of the women of her time who devoted herself to the study of mathematics and knowledge of scientific advances. With a rigorous and didactic style, she popularized astronomy and wrote many essays.

In 1834, she was named an honorary member of the “Société de Physique et d’Histoire Naturelle de Genève“. That same year she became part of the Royal Academy of Ireland. In 1835, she was admitted to the Royal Astronomical Society, along with Carolina Herschel.

Starting in 1838, the health problems of her husband, William Somerville, forced the couple to move to live in southern Italy, in search of a better climate. Her husband passed away in Florence in 1860.

During the 34 years that she resided in Italy, Mary Somerville published mathematical works that influenced the works of James Clerk Maxwell. Mary published her “Physical geography” in 1848, a treatise that continued in force well into the 20th century.

Maxwell
James Clerk Maxwell, Scottish mathematician and physicist. He was the first to suggest that all electromagnetic waves propagate at 300,000 km per second. Credit: Wikipedia

In 1857, Mary Somerville was named a member of the “American Society for Geography and Statistics“. In 1869 she was awarded the “Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society“.

Much later, in 1870, she was admitted to the “American Philosophical Society” and to the” Italian Geographical Society“.

Mary Somerville had many remarkable women who succeeded her with great honor. Among them, three are especially worth mentioning: Ada Lovelace (1815), Margaret Hamilton (1936) and Marta Macho Stadler.

The last years of life of this remarkable woman

In the last days of her life he wrote: “I am 92 years old … my memory for ordinary events is weak, but not for mathematics or scientific experiences. I am still able to read higher algebra books for four or five hours in the morning, and even solving problems“.

The great mathematician Mary Somerville passed away in Naples in 1872.

Somerville College at Oxford University has kept the memory of her legacy alive, since 1879.

The Somerville lunar crater bears this name in her memory.

The asteroid (5771) Somerville also commemorates her name.

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