Mary Fairfax Somerville

Birth: December 26, 1780
Death: November 29, 1872
Specialty: astronomy
Major Contributions:
Her work inspired John Adams to search for and co-discover Neptune
Published several books on natural sciences which were used as textbooks through the early 20th century

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Mary Fairfax was born in 1780 in Scotland. At age 10, her father sent her to boarding school for a year. There she learned reading and writing poorly, though she could do simple arithmetic. When she returned home, she was informally taught geography and astronomy but did not have the same education as her brother. While listening in on her brother’s mathematics lesson one day, she correctly answered a question when he could not and after that his tutor allowed her to continue with lessons unofficially.

After studying art in Edinburgh, she learned about perspective. This inspired her to read Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, and she began to teach herself from it. Unfortunately, around this time Mary’s parents forbid her from further study; she continued on her own in secret. Among her clandestine studies were plane and spherical trigonometry, Fergusson’s Astronomy, and Newton’s Principia, though she admits in her own writings that it was several years before she would understand the latter.

In 1804 she married Samuel Greig. It was not a happy time, as her husband did not believe women capable of academic pursuits. When he died in 1807, she returned to Scotland and in 1812 she married Dr. William Somerville, who encouraged and aided her in the study of physical sciences.

Somerville began her first experiments on magnetism in 1825 and began publishing her work in 1826. Her writings included, “The magnetic properties of the violet rays of the solar spectrum”, “On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences,” and “Mechanism of the Heavens,” several of which became textbooks. After 1831, she began writing about the work of other scientists. One book prompted John Adams to search for the planet Neptune, which he co-discovered. Somerville was jointly nominated to be the first female member of the Royal Astronomical Society with Caroline Herschel; both were admitted.

Throughout her 91 years, Mary Somerville received many professional accolades, though her real legacy is her efforts to make science more accessible through her writings. When she died in 1872, Somerville was hailed by The London Post as ‘The Queen of Nineteenth-Century Science’.

Written by Nicole Hutchison


Wikipedia: Mary Somerville

Biographies of Women Mathematicians: Mary Fairfax Somerville

Mary Fairfax Greig Somerville

About Education: Mary Somerville-Pioneer Woman mathematician and Scientist

Collective Biographies of Women: Mary Somerville

See Also: Personal recollections, from early life to old age, of Mary Somerville. With selections from her correspondence