Mary Somerville


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Mary Somerville was a Scottish scientist, writer, and polymath. She studied mathematics and astronomy, and in 1835 she and Caroline Herschel were elected as the first female Honorary Members of the Royal Astronomical Society. When John Stuart Mill organized a massive petition to Parliament to give women the right to vote, he made sure that the first signature on the petition would be Somerville's.

In 1834 she became the first person to be described in print as a 'scientist.' When she died in 1872, The Morning Post declared in her obituary that "Whatever difficulty we might experience in the middle of the nineteenth century in choosing a king of science, there could be no question whatever as to the queen of science." 

Somerville College, a college of the University of Oxford, is named after her, reflecting the virtues of liberalism and academic success which the college wished to embody. She is featured on the front of the Royal Bank of Scotland polymer £10 note launched in 2017, along with a quotation from her work On the Connection of the Physical Sciences.

Somerville, the daughter of Vice-Admiral Sir William George Fairfax, was related to several prominent Scottish houses through her mother, Margaret Charters. She was born at the manse of Jedburgh, the home of her maternal aunt and the Rev. Dr. Thomas Somerville (1741–1830) (author of My Own Life and Times). Her childhood home was in Burntisland, Fife, where her mother was from.

Somerville was the second of four surviving children (three of her siblings had died in infancy). She was particularly close to her oldest brother Sam. The family lived in genteel poverty as her father's naval pay remained meager, despite his rise through the ranks. Her mother supplemented the household's income by growing vegetables, maintaining an orchard, and keeping cows for milk. Her mother taught her to read the Bible and Calvinist catechisms. When her household chores were done, Mary was free to roam among the birds and flowers in the garden.

In her autobiography, Somerville recollects that on her father's return from the sea, he said to his wife, "This kind of life will never do; Mary must at least know how to write and keep accounts". Ten-year-old Mary was then sent to an expensive boarding school in Musselburgh, where she learned the first principles of writing, rudimentary French, and English grammar. Upon returning home, she:

...was no longer amused in the gardens but wandered about the country. When the tide was out, I spent hours on the sands, looking at the starfish and sea-urchins or watching the children digging for sand eels, cockles, and the spouting razor-fish. I made collections of shells, such as were cast ashore, some so small that they appeared like white specks in patches of black sand. 

There was a small pier on the sands for shipping limestone brought from the coal mines inland. I was astonished to see the surface of these blocks of stone covered with beautiful impressions of what seemed to be leaves; how they got there I could not imagine, but I picked up the broken bits, and even large pieces, and brought them to my repository.

During bad weather, Somerville occupied herself with reading the books in her father's library, including Shakespeare, as well as with "domestic duties." Such duties "occupied a great part of my time; besides, I had to shew my sampler, working the alphabet from A to Z, as well as the ten numbers, on canvas".

Her aunt Janet came to live with the family and reportedly said to her mother, "I wonder you let Mary waste her time in reading; she never shows [sews] more than if she were a man." Somerville was then sent to the village school to learn plain needlework, where she found herself annoyed that her "turn for reading was so much disapproved of, and thought it unjust that women should have been given a desire for knowledge if it were wrong to acquire it." Several times each week, the village schoolmaster came to teach Mary at home. In her Personal Recollections, Somerville notes that the boys learned Latin at the village school, while "it was thought sufficient for the girls to be able to read the Bible; very few even learned writing."

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Mary Somerville

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