The Magnificent Folly of Mary Somerville

The Magnificent Folly of Mary Somerville

By the time Mary Fairfax Somerville (1780-1872) reached her teens, her father thought she was one step away from a straight jacket.

What had she done? Run with the wolves, set the house on fire, danced raving through the streets?

No, Mary had fallen in love—with mathematics. And it was enough to make her father fear for her sanity.

Despite his censure and that of her first husband, Mary forged a career in math and science. At age 50, she published a treatise so ahead of its time, one of her peers coined a new word for her—scientist. She had proved the old one, man of science, obsolete.

The Wild Child

Mary was a wild child raised by the sea. She often wandered along the Firth of Forth honing her powers of observation:

I knew the names of none of the seaweeds, though I was well acquainted with and admired many of these beautiful plants. I also watched the crabs, live shells, jelly-fish, and various marine animals, all of which were objects of curiosity and amusement to me in my lonely life…

Her father, who later became Vice-Admiral Sir William George Fairfax, returned from a naval tour of duty to find that his nine-year-old daughter could read some Bible verses, but could neither write nor do sums.

He sent Mary to Miss Primrose’s School for a year. Mary considered it a horrid place that beat in learning by rod and by rote. Luckily, it didn’t completely kill her curiosity.

Fears For Her Sanity

Mary also studied music and painting, required accomplishments for her era.  Her painting teacher mentioned that Euclid’s theories, which explained perspective in painting, also formed the basis for understanding astronomy and other sciences.

That sounded much more intriguing than parlor skills. Mary persuaded her brother’s tutor to teach her Euclid. Captain Fairfax was aghast:

My father came home for a short time, and, somehow or other, finding out what I was about, said to my mother, ‘Peg, we must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a straight jacket one of these days. There was X., who went raving mad about the longitude!’

He was serious. The accepted “wisdom” of the time warned that too much intellectual stimulation could drive a woman insane.

Mary’s mother instead encouraged her to attend tea parties, practice her dance steps, and peruse fashion magazines.

Ladies’ periodicals often contained puzzles. Mary tried to solve what looked like a simple math problem in one, only to find the answer full of exotic symbols.

She discovered they were algebra equations. Intrigued, she commenced a life-long course of study.

Her parents, at wit’s end, wed Mary to a distant cousin, Samuel Grieg, when she was 24.  Her new husband had a low opinion of women’s intelligence and forbade Mary’s studies.

Grieg died three years later, leaving Mary with two young sons. But as a widow, she was free to do as she wished.

Love and A Life’s Calling

Upon returning to Scotland, Mary corresponded with Dr. William Wallace, professor of mathematics at the University of Edinburgh.

Wallace guided her study of math and astronomy and encouraged her to read Newton’s Principia and Laplace’s Mécanique Céleste (the latter would change her life). He also suggested which books she should buy for her personal science library.

I could hardly believe that I possessed such a treasure when I looked back on the day that I first saw the mysterious word ‘Algebra,’ and the long course of years in which I had persevered almost without hope. It taught me never to despair. I had now the means, and pursued my studies with increased assiduity; concealment was no longer possible, nor was it attempted.

In 1812, at age 32, Mary wed her first cousin William Somerville, a hospital administrator, who shared and encouraged her love of knowledge.  They had four children together.

The couple moved to London, where Mary met the greatest minds of her time, including inventor Charles Babbage and astronomer William Herschel.  She became Ada Byron’s first mathematics tutor.

(Some circles credit Ada, Lord Byron’s daughter by his estranged wife, with originating the concept of software programming.  The U.S. Department of Defense named their ADA programming language after her.)

In 1827, the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge requested that Mary translate Laplace’s Mécanique Céleste. She went beyond the assignment, however, and explained the equations.  At the time, many English mathematicians didn’t understand them.

In 1831, John Murray published her translation, Mechanism of the Heavens. It reaped both financial and critical success and established her in the scientific community. Mary was past 50.

In 1835, the Royal Astronomical Society made Mary and Caroline Herschel their first female members.

Mary also wrote On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834), Physical Geography (1848), and Molecular and Microscopic Science (1869). She completed the latter in her late 80s.

In reviewing Connexion, William Whewell coined the word scientist to describe Mary. She had rendered the general term men of science obsolete.

Mary’s daughter, Martha Somerville, published Mary’s autobiography after her death at age 92.

Martha noted that despite the hours her mother spent studying and writing, she home-schooled her daughters in math and science, and engaged tutors for them in other subjects.  She wanted to assure they never experienced a Miss Primrose’s School.

Throughout her life, in fact, Mary championed education for women. Oxford University named Somerville College in her honor.

From being considered illiterate as a child and mad for studying math, to becoming the UK’s first “scientist,” Mary Somerville never let popular opinion deter her. That, and a magnificent stubbornness, helped her prevail.

Sometimes I find [mathematical problems] difficult, but my old obstinacy remains, for if I do not succeed today, I attack them again on the morrow.

Mary Somerville


25 Responses

  1. Debra,
    This was fantastic. I really enjoyed learning about Mary Somerville. It was fascinating to find how the word “scientist” was derived. Thank you so much.
    Thank you again for sending me “The Happiness Project.” I’m really enjoying it.
    All my best wishes to you for the coming new year.

    • Debra Eve

      Thanks, Angela, and same to you! I thought The Happiness Project was both practical and accessible. I like it a lot, too.

  2. David Stevens
    | Reply

    Cousins marrying? She was a go getter in more ways than one…..great read as usual Debra, thankyou
    be good to yourself

    • Debra Eve

      You know those crazy Brits, they just did stuff like that, especially in the upper classes. Keeping it (the money especially) in the family. Thanks for stopping by, David!

  3. Cathy | Treatment Talk
    | Reply

    Hi Debra,

    She sounds like an amazing women, so ahead of her time. I was glad to read that she had support with her second marriage and was able to realize her goals, even if in an unconventional way. Thanks for sharing.

    • Debra Eve

      It’s hard to pick a favorite late bloomer out of all those I write about, but she’s definitely one of mine because the era she lived in made everything more difficult for women. It’s so cool Oxford honored her by naming a college after her. Thanks for stopping by, Cathy!

  4. shirleyhs
    | Reply

    I wish I had read this fascinating account before I stayed at Somerville College on the Oxford University campus this summer. I did see this portrait, however. So I feel a special connection. Thanks for these creative portraits.

    • Debra Eve

      Thanks so much, Shirley. I’ve always wanted to stay at Somerville! Just checked out your blog and loved it.

  5. Lynette M Burrows
    | Reply

    Wonderful post, Debra. I love the women who manage to buck the conventions of their time and despite discouragement everywhere, find a way to be true to themselves. As for her finishing her last book in her 80s – YAY! I’ve still got time to be productive.

  6. florence fois
    | Reply

    Debra, I seem to recall Mary’s name from before. I have a friend who was considered a “weird” kid who has spent her entire life enthralled by the world of mathematics. In fact they are the only books she “keeps,” while all others are donated soon after reading.

    Thank you so much for posting Mary’s story once more. I will never stop being captivated by the women who have forged the pathways for so many others. It is in their footsteps that many of us walk the walk … and it is with their shadows as our guides that we find our true selves 🙂

    • Debra Eve

      Thanks, Florence. Some times I think we’ve come so far, and yet, other times I think how hard it still is for us to find our true selves. As I get older, I’ve come to think of stubborness as a virtue 🙂

  7. Marla Martenson
    | Reply

    I loved this, thanks so much. Math has always been my worst subject, good for Mary to be so talented in many things. Amazing.

    • Debra Eve

      Your welcome, Marla! I struggled with math too, Marla, and had to take advanced classes for my degree. I had one teacher who imparted some of the excitement Mary must have felt about math. He was so enthusiastic and I finally GOT it. As Mary experienced, so much of it has to do with how we’re taught.

  8. Madeleine Kolb
    | Reply

    Debra, What a fascinating and well-written profile of Mary Fairfax Somerville. It never ceases to amaze me how various groups of people, such as Native Americans, women, or old people, are seen as being incapable or unsuited for certain endeavors.

    Then those in power try very hard to deny those people the opportunity to participate in those activities. What are they afraid of–that women, for example–are really not capable or that they may be extremely capable? In some cases, more capable than most men? We see it over and over, and Mary Fairfax Somerville is a dazzling example. Well done!

    • Debra Eve

      Thank you, Madeleine! (Hope you don’t mind I made your correction — I totally understood what you meant.) What an excellent question…what is the fear? I beginning to think it’s about power for power’s sake, because a inclusive society could only benefit everyone.

  9. Anne R. Allen
    | Reply

    What a fascinating woman. And a testament to the courage of the women who defied the patriarchal dictum that women exist only to reproduce.

    • Debra Eve

      Thanks, Anne. I’m finding in my research that more women like Mary existed during the 18th and 19th centuries than we realize — they just haven’t come down to us like their male peers. It always excites me to “discover” one!

  10. Ellen M. Gregg
    | Reply

    Such a great story! I love her evolution from curious child to even more curious adult and eminent mathematical scholar, and the connection between her and modern-day software engineering is mind-boggling. It’s thrilling to know that women were far more than society dictated, back in the day – even to the point of having an every-day term coined for them. Mary Somerville, Scientist. Awesome. 🙂

  11. Chris Edgar
    | Reply

    I definitely got the sense of her childhood enjoyment of math, and the respite it may have given her from her family situation and her culture, driving her through all the work she performed as an adult. I think I had a similar relationship with reading. 🙂

    • Debra Eve

      Me too, Chris. Reading sustained me through just about everything growing up 🙂

  12. Ian Somerville
    | Reply

    Its good to see other peoples gratitude for Mary Somerville and her scientific knowledge , just recently there was a report on BBC news about Ada lovelace and how she helped Babbage with the first programmable computer , yet no mention on Marys visits to Babbage to help him with his calculations and the fact that Mary was also Ada,s tutor , it good to know that she is still recognized throughout the world as a pioneering scientist im shure in her own ways she helped change the world of education for both men and women : ) keep up the good work , Ian Somerville.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      Can’t believe the BBC could run a story about Ada and Babbage and not mentioned Mary Somerville! Just for that, I’ll expand the paragraph in my post about those relationships later this week (I’m also expanding these posts for the 2nd edition of my book). Are you by any chance one of Mary’s descendants, Ian? That would be very cool.

  13. Ian Somerville
    | Reply

    Im not sure if I am descendant Debra ,never had the time to check out my family tree, but i do live about 3 miles along the coast from Marys Burntisland house and have a fascination for maths and physics , I have done some research on Mary as well , due to same name and interests, I will look out some links for you and e mail them if your interested , im sure the local council/ housing authority in Burntisland took some photos of her house when doing renovations and found paintings of planets etc on ceiling in house , will do my best to find them and will post back to you as soon as i can ,she was a fascinating lady , thanks Ian Somerville

  14. Patricia
    | Reply

    Good for Mary! Fun story.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

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