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Jedburgh, Mary Somerville's Birthplace
Jedburgh, Mary Somerville's Birthplace

Mary Somerville lived from 26 December 1780 to 28 November 1872. In an age when many thought women were meant to be no more than decorative objects or homemakers, she was a writer with a deep understanding of many of the newly emerging fields in science, mathematics and astronomy. Her achievements were so significant that the word "scientist" was first coined in 1834 specifically to describe her. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

Mary Somerville was the daughter of Admiral Sir William George Fairfax, and she was born at her uncle's manse in Jedburgh. She received little formal education, and secretly taught herself algebra and geometry from books after she had left school. In 1804 Mary married a distant cousin, Captain Samuel Greig, who was also the Russian Consul in London. They had two children together before Captain Greg died in 1806, leaving Mary as a 25 year old widow, albeit a very wealthy one, with the means to pursue her broad range of interests in the world around her.

In 1812, Mary married another cousin, Dr William Somerville, inspector of the Army Medical Board (and the son of the uncle in whose Jedburgh manse she had been born). William helped Mary develop her interests in the physical sciences and opened doors that allowed her to make the acquaintance of many of the most eminent men of science and thinkers of the day. It was at about this time that Pierre-Simon, Marquis de Laplace, paid her the slightly back-handed compliment of saying that she was the only woman to understand his mathematical work.

Mary's big breakthrough came when Lord Brougham, on behalf of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, asked her to translate into English, Laplace's book Exposition du système du monde and the Méchanique céleste. intended by him to "offer a complete solution of the great mechanical problem presented by the solar system, and bring theory to coincide so closely with observation that empirical equations should no longer find a place in astronomical tables." When Mary's translation, entitled The Mechanism of the Heavens appeared in 1831 it made her instantly famous.

Mary Somerville went on to write a number of other successful works: The Connection of the Physical Sciences (1834); Physical Geography (1848); and Molecular and Microscopic Science (1869). Her books were popular largely because she wrote in a clear and accessible style which succeeded in communicating her deep enthusiasm for (and considerable depth of expertise in) the subjects she covered. In a review of her 1834 book,The Connection of the Physical Sciences, the respected critic William Whewell coined the word "scientist" to describe her, presumably because, until then, the phrase "men of science" had been perfectly adequate and largely accurate. "Men and women of science" is a seriously unwieldy expression, a problem resolved by Whewell with the word "scientist".

In 1835, Mary Somerville and Caroline Herschel became the first women to be admitted to membership of the Royal Astronomical Society, and in the same year she was awarded an annual pension of £300 by the government in recognition of her work in communicating science to a wider audience.

Mary and her second husband moved to Italy in 1838, where she lived until her death in Naples in 1872. The following year the autobiographical Personal Recollections was published. This was written in her old age and painted a personal picture of literary and scientific society in the mid 1800s. Oxford University's Somerville College was named after Mary Somerville, as was Somerville Island, off the British Columbian coast near the border with Alaska.

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