Mary Somerville: Queen of Nineteenth Century Science

Mary Somerville- Queen of Nineteenth Century Science
Born: December 26 1780, Jedburgh, Scotland (Mary Fairfax)
Died: November 29 1872, Florence, Italy (Mary Fairfax Grieg Somerville)
Studied: Nowhere formally, but independently studied all the science available and French, Greek, and Latin

Early Life

Mary Somerville. Source: Somerville College, Oxford

Mary was born in Scotland. Her father, who was in the British Navy, went away to sea when she was very young, and did not see her until she was grown. Accounts of Mary’s childhood have her running around, enjoying nature and exploring her world – not exactly the image of a young lady. She attended Miss Primrose’s boarding school (which sounds like something out of an Enid Blyton book) at age 10, where she went to learn numeracy and how to write (fortunately for her, Mary could already read). Mary did not do well in school; in fact she scored quite poorly, and had to leave after only a year, as the school was too expensive for Mary’s mother if her daughter didn’t excel. Luckily, Mary was permitted to infrequently study with the village schoolmaster (her mother often indulging her). However, her mother and father did not want to formally educate Mary, as she was destined to be a housewife. Therefore she learned domestic skills as well as other “feminine” skills such as dancing and painting.

This was all well and good until Mary stumbled upon a women’s magazine that had a small symbolic puzzle, describing the problem as “algebra”. Mary fell in love and begged her brother to help her study the subject. She tried to study with her brother’s books, but to no avail. Then her uncle came to the rescue (everyone needs a cool uncle). William Somerville (who would become her father-in-law) procured her a copy of An Introduction to Algebra by John Bonnycastle and Elements by Euclid (a famous ancient Greek mathematician, who literally wrote the book on geometry). (A note to my own uncles: no, you cannot get me maths textbooks for Christmas this year!) When her father found out, he was worried that she would go mad from all the reading (her poor female brain, she just couldn’t handle all that knowledge! *rolls eyes *). So, to continue studying, Mary would wake up at the crack of dawn and sneak into the library to read, where she would huddle in blankets to protect her from the Scottish winter. Now that, my friends, is dedication.

In 1804, Mary had the “joy” of marrying Samuel Grieg, a distant cousin, who didn’t believe that women should pursue an education. The pair had two sons, in 1805 and 1806. Sadly, Samuel died in 1807, leaving Mary with a widow’s pension, two sons, and an opportunity to keep studying. The three of them moved back to Scotland and stayed with Mary’s family. During this time, Mary befriended academics at the University of Edinburgh, including William Wallace, who would become her mentor and eventually a professor of mathematics at the university. During this time, Mary was fending off suitors. She refused them when the men didn’t believe their wife should be smarter than them.

In 1812 Mary had the actual joy of marrying William Somerville (the younger, not the uncle who gave her the math books – but yes, he was her first cousin). This husband actually supported her education and they studied geology and mineralogy together (#couplegoals). Somerville was a military surgeon, and was also a fellow at the Royal Society of London (a prestigious scientific body in England – every who’s who of British science was a member, if they were a dude). Under Wallace’s mentorship, Mary studied mountains of astronomy and mathematics (much of it French), as well as Greek, botany, and a touch of Latin.

Mary and Somerville were blessed with children, but unfortunately also haunted by loss:

  • 1813: Margaret was born
  • 1814: one of Grieg’s sons died
  • 1815: Somerville’s son was born, died that year
  • 1815: Mary was born
  • 1817: Martha was born

While Somerville was between jobs (1817-1819), he and Mary visited Europe and met with many important intellectuals, including: Jean-Baptiste Biot, Francios Arago, and Pierre-Simon Laplace (who I, as a historian, respect, but as an engineering student, cringe every time he and his transformations come up in lectures). Some stability entered the Somerville’s lives when, in 1819, Somerville became director of the Royal Military Hospital in Chelsea. This gave Mary time to continue to her research and study. Sadly, in 1823, their daughter Margaret passed away at age 10.

However, in 1826, Mary published her first paper, which examined the relationship between magnetism and sunlight. It was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (and it was the first to be published under a woman’s own name). While the paper’s conclusions were incorrect (as much of the science produced in the nineteenth century was), she continued researching and giving public presentations. It was Mary’s close network of friends who encouraged her to continue research after her conclusions were disproven. This is one of the differences between Mary and Ada Lovelace’s stories; a close network of friends can make all the difference.

The paper itself was remarkably easy to read, certainly easier than many of the papers published in this century. And – while it didn’t have the data tables which are familiar to any scientist – the paper itself is method, she explains each step she took, and she repeated her experiments trying to find the correct variable to analyse. Perhaps those publishing papers could learn a thing or two from our Mrs Mary Somerville…


Front page of Mary Somerville’s first published paper: On the Magnetising Power of the More RefrangibleSolar Rays. Source: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London

In 1827 Mary was given an enormous opportunity by her friend, Henry Brougham (who, incidentally, would soon become Lord Chancellor of Britain). He asked her to translate Traitè de mécanique celeste (‘Treatise on celestial mechanics’; it explained how the solar system’s mechanics worked based on Newtonian physics). It was a 5 volume monster, and as if the job wasn’t big enough, Mary actually added a “preliminary dissertation” explaining the level of understanding required to comprehend the book, as well as explanations and diagrams within the text itself. This “preliminary dissertation” acted as an introduction and included some of Mary’s own mathematical ideas. The project culminated in 1831 with the publishing of The Mechanisms of the Heavens by M. Somerville (the book was now too different to simply be a translation of Laplace’s work). It was translated into German, Italian, and French (ironically), as well as pirated and sold in America (which just shows that pirating media unavailable in your own country is not exactly a new phenomenon). Cambridge eventually adopted it as a high level mathematical textbook in 1837, making it the first book written by a woman to be used as a university textbook.

Not satisfied to simply publish one book, Mary published Connexion of the Physical Sciences in 1832. This book detailed the interplay between physical geography, meteorology, magnetism, physics, and astronomy. She believed that a science couldn’t be studied in isolation, as all the physical sciences are connected. This book was designed to help people understand the science they were both familiar and unfamiliar with, making it easier to access. James Clark Maxwell (an important guy in physics, came up with the idea of the electromagnetic spectrum, you might have heard of it) called it a “seminal work of the nineteenth century”. The book ran through 10 editions before 1872, with each edition featuring new and updated theories, making the book the forefront of Victorian scientific knowledge (unlike new editions of books today which change around the chapters and charge an extra $100 for the new version, I’m looking at you, textbook publishers!).

In 1835 this book, as well as some of her other work for science, helped win her a civil pension of 200 pounds per year (which was later raised to 300 pounds), awarded to her by Sir Robert Peel, who was the Prime Minister of Great Britain at the time. This was the same amount given to many of the names we know today such as Michael Faraday (who also did a lot of work in electromagnetism). Earlier, in 1832, she had also been elected as an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy and the Societe de Physique et d’Histoire Naturelle of Geneva (neither organisation let women become full members until many years later). In 1835 she also became an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society (along with Caroline Herschel).

While Mary published expository works such as Connexions, she also continued to publish original research. In 1836, Arago delivered a paper on her behalf to the French Academy of Science, and in 1845, John Herschel delivered another paper on her behalf to the Royal Society (entitled ‘On the actions of the Rays of the Spectrum on Vegetable Juices’ – yes, she shone light on different kinds of vegetable juices). Mary may have conducted and published original research, but she didn’t actually believe that women were capable of original ideas or discoveries. She believed that only men were capable of this. I’m glad her beliefs have been thoroughly proven wrong.

 She continued to publish books though, explaining new science to the masses, and in 1848 she published Physical Geography, which would go through 7 editions, each with new up-to-date information. As this book supported the Old Earth theory (i.e. didn’t believe that the world was 6000 years old), Mary, and the book, were denounced both in the House of Commons and the Church of England (pretty impressive). Though, interestingly, Mary never added in Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection, as she didn’t believe it was fully formed enough to be added to her book. This book detailed, along with other topics, how heat was processed around the planet, from volcanos to sunlight. Mary discussed many new theories throughout her books. Unfortunately, many of these theories had to stay just that: theories. They couldn’t be proven at the time, because there was no data to support or disprove them.

This was after Mary and the family moved to Italy, in the late 1830s, because of the family’s debt due to financial obligations to relatives and Somerville’s failing health (Italy’s climate was kinder on William’s failing body). As Somerville could no longer work, the family relied on Mary’s pension and the proceeds from her published works.

Even in Italy, she continued to work on her scientific publications, and was continually awarded for her efforts. In 1857 she was elected to the American Geography and Statistical Society, and in 1870 she was elected a member of the Italian Geography Society. In 1869, Mary published her fourth and final work, On Molecular and Microscopic Science. This book covered lots of chemistry, biology, and botany. She was also elected to the American Philosophical Society in the same year, as well as winning the Victoria Gold Medal (from the Royal Geographical Society) and the Victor Emmenuel Gold Medal (from the Geographical Society of Florence).

William Somerville died in 1860, and Mary’s son with Grieg, Woronzow Grieg, died in 1865. Mary herself passed away on November 29 1870 in Florence, Italy.

Mary’s Legacy

Mary Somerville had a deep and profound impact on British science in the nineteenth century, which in turn impacted the history of science. She inspired many people with her works, who then made brilliant discoveries which changed the world. For example, John Couch Adams said that it was by reading Connexions that he was inspired to analyse Uranus’ orbit, and in doing so, he calculated the position of Neptune, becoming the co-discoverer of the planet (he also happened to do all these calculations in his head before writing them down, he was a pretty extraordinary guy).

Mary also paved the way for more women who came after her to have access to science and the world of academia. She encouraged the next generation, such as Ada Lovelace, and showed the world that women could do science. She also believed that women should have the same access to education as men, and signed a petition in 1862 pressuring the University of London to allow women to sit for degrees. While the petition was rejected (I know, I’m shocked too), the university eventually let women sit for degrees in 1878 (and was apparently the first in the UK to do so).

Mary also had a college at Oxford University named after her, Somerville College, which opened in 1879. And, while her friends may have equations and theories named after them, Mary has an island in the Arctic Ocean named after her (named by her friend Edward Parry).

Screen Shot 2017-04-30 at 11.51.12 AM
Somerville Island, Baffin, Canada. Source: Google Maps

Mary was also a champion of other social causes, including women’s suffrage and abolition, both of which eventually succeeded (mostly, kind of, that area is complicated).

How was Mary treated?

While Mary was a woman living in Victorian England, she still did have some advantages in her life. Being in Britain allowed her greater access to science than she would have had in similar countries at the same time, such as Germany and Russia. This is because of the culture of science in Britain, instead of being run by academia, was actually run by the rich and powerful amateurs. This meant that even without a proper education Mary could access this world of knowledge, albeit it with difficulty. Mary also had a social advantage: she was white, and came from a respected family (as her father was in the military and her husband was a military surgeon). The fact that her husband (the second one) was supportive of her endeavours was also a huge help, as many women did not have this level of encouragement from their spouses. Another great advantage Mary had was her support network. This allowed to her to access resources she otherwise couldn’t (such as expensive scientific texts, as well as first hand scientific knowledge). This support network was made up of both the men in the scientific community and their wives. She was actually treated as a peer by the men in her circle, which was not common at the time.

However, while Mary was fortunate enough to have all these advantages in her life, this did not mean that everything she achieved was easy. She was still unable to access any real form of formal education such as high school or university. She had to overcome her family’s expectations that educating a woman would lead to disaster, and that she should only learn domestic skills, as well as her first husband who didn’t believe that women should be educated. In addition to this, she could not become a member of the influential societies that her male peers could (such as the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society), and thus couldn’t access the resources that membership would provide. Although Mary eventually found a way around most of these roadblocks, they still hindered her path for a while, slowing her and her achievements down.

What would Mary like about our world today?

First off the bat, I think she would be pleased that the social causes she championed have been achieved: women can vote, slavery has technically been abolished, and women can now sit for degrees and sink horribly into student debt just like men!

I’m sure Mary would also enjoy how science is a part of our daily lives. I think that if she was around today, she would probably still be a scientific writer, and she would write about how science affects our daily lives without us knowing (I can imagine her being a podcast host on a Discovery Channel show or something). She would have totally loved our science communicators today such as Neil Degrasse Tyson, Brian Cox, and Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki (for the international readers, he’s an Australian science communicator, google him, he’s awesome).


NDT science
Source: Tenor Gifs

She would also like the fact that we are moving towards an inter-disciplinary research model in universities as a way of discovering more about our world. She would definitely enjoy sitting in a science classroom today and hearing the theories her friends created and she wrote about being taught to the next generation. I hope that she would enjoy seeing original discoveries being made by women (such as Rita Levi-Montalcini) and how they have changed our world.

Mary Somerville helped contribute to the scientific output of the nineteenth century. She was part of the last generation to understand all the available science (that’s pretty much impossible for us now, there’s literally just so much more science to find out about), and she condensed all this information and synthesised entire books out of it – books that inspire so many people to think about science in their daily lives and how the world works. She helped women access science and mathematics. Mary Somerville truly deserves her coronation of “Queen of Nineteenth Century Science”.

PB science
Source: Giphy


Ackberg-Hastings, A. (2016). Mary Somerville: Salem Press Biographical Encyclopeadia
Brock, C. (2006). The Public Worth of Mary Somerville. The British Journal for the History of Science, 39(2), 255-272.
Chapman, A. (2016). Mary Somerville: pioneering pragmatist, Astronomy. Geophysics, 57, 2.10-12.12.
NASA. John Couch Adams.   Retrieved from
Patterson, E. C. (1969). Mary Somerville. The British Journal for the History of Science, 4(4), 311-339.
Patterson, E. C. (1974). The Case of Mary SOmerville: An Aspect of Nineteenth Century. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 118(3), 269-275.
Sanderson, M. S., M. . (1974). Mary Somerville: Her Work in Physical Geography. Geographical Review, 64(3), 410-420.
Somerville, M. (1826). On the Magnetizing Power of the More Refrangible Solar Rays. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 132-139.
Somerville, M. (1846). On the Action of the Rays of the Spectrum on Vegetable Juices. Extract of a letter from Mrs M. Somerville to Sir J. F. W. Hershel, Bart., Dated, Rome, September 20 1845. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 136, 111-120.
University of London: History.   Retrieved from


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