13 June 2021

Mary Somerville, Scottish polymath

Mary Somerville, born Mary Fairfax in 1780, was a Scottish scientist, known particularly for her books on astronomy and other physical sciences. Somerville College in Oxford is named after her. However, when I was at Somerville there was little sign of her in the college. I came across no portraits of her, and none of the undergraduates I knew seemed aware of who the college was named after.

In spite of the limited availability of education for girls at the time, Somerville seems to have seized her opportunities whenever they arose. For example, when she heard a teacher advising another (male) student to read Euclid’s Elements, she decided that she should do so too, as it would help her understand a textbook on navigational theory.

Her inheritance from the death of her first husband gave Somerville the freedom to pursue intellectual interests. She started to make a name for herself in 1811 when she was awarded a medal for solving a mathematical problem.

In 1827 Somerville was hired to translate Laplace’s Mécanique Céleste. She produced an expanded version of the first two volumes which was published as The Mechanism of the Heavens. This book made her famous, and remained a textbook for undergraduates until the 1880s. Somerville’s second book, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, sold over 10,000 copies and consolidated her reputation in physical science.

When Mary Somerville died in 1872, she was described in an obituary as the ‘queen of science’.