Mary Fairfax Somerville (26 December 1780 – 28 November 1872) was the daughter of British Vice-Admiral Sir William George Fairfax, (from the distinguished family of Fairfaxes) and was related to several prominent Scottish houses through her mother. Returning from sea, her father considered the 10-year-old Mary “a savage” and sent her for a year of tuition at Muselburgh, an expensive boarding school; she returned being able to read, and able to write, albeit poorly. She also could perform simple arithmetic and knew a little French (Somerville, 1874).
Partly self-taught, with the additional benefit of “auditing” her brother’s tutoring, Somerville developed an affinity for mathematics. Still, as convention and familiar pressures dictated she was forced to go about in Society when she came of age and study in secret.
In 1804 she married her distant cousin, the Russian Consul in London, Captain Samuel Greig. They had two children before Greig died in 1807. Under her husbands auspices, living in London Somerville found little freedom to continue her academic interests–her husband did not think much of women’s capacity to prusue academic interests.
Somerville returned home to Scotland upon his death and the inheritance gave her the freedom to pursue intellectual interests. In 1812 she married another cousin, Dr William Somerville (1771–1860), inspector of the Army Medical Board, who encouraged and greatly aided her in the study of the physical sciences. They had a further four children.
During her marriage she made the acquaintance of the most eminent scientific men of the time, among whom her talents had attracted attention. Before she had acquired general fame, Laplace told her “There have been only three women who have understood me. These are yourself, Mrs Somerville, Caroline Herschel and a Mrs Greig of whom I know nothing” (of course, Somerville was first and third of these three).
Oxford Somerville College is named after Mary who popularised the understanding of the night sky. She and fellow astronomer Caroline Herschel were the first women admitted to the Royal Astronomical Society, in 1835. Her most significant publishing came in the 1830s and later including:
- 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 – first book in England on Earth’s physical surface
- 1869 – On Molecular and Microscopic Science – about physics and chemistry
For more reading:
Mary T Brück. “Mary Somerville, mathematician and astronomer of underused talents”. Journal of the British Astronomical Association 206 (4): 201.
Somerville, Martha. Personal Recollections, From Early Life to Old Age, of Mary Somerville. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1874. (written by her daughter) Reprinted by AMS Press (January 1996), ISBN 0-404-56837-8 Fully accessible from Google Books project.