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Mary Fairfax Somerville: 1780 – 1872

Mary Somerville Mary Somerville was a Scottish science writer and polymath, at a time when women's participation in science was discouraged. She studied mathematics and astronomy, and was the second woman scientist to receive recognition in the United Kingdom after Caroline Herschel.

Her father, Sir William George Fairfax, held the view that girls were best occupied by attending to needlework and similar pursuits. Despite this attitude, she taught herself geometry and algebra. In 1804, at the age of twenty four, Mary married her cousin, who died 3 years later. She found that widowhood and a comfortable inheritance had left her both emotionally and financially independent. No longer controlled by either her parents or husband, Mary was free to study according to her personal convictions.

She remarried in 1812 to another cousin, Dr. William Somerville. Dr. Somerville was very supportive of his wife's intellectual endeavors. The couple had four children together. Mary Fairfax Somerville's scientific investigations began in the summer of 1825, when she carried out experiments on magnetism. In 1826 she presented her paper entitled "The Magnetic Properties of the Violet Rays of the Solar Spectrum" to the Royal Society. The paper attracted favorable notice and, aside from the astronomical observations of Caroline Herschel, was the first paper by a woman to be read to the Royal Society and published in its Philosophical Transactions (Grinstein and Campbell 213). Although the theory presented in her paper would eventually be refuted by the investigations of others, it distinguished her as a skilled scientific writer respected among her colleagues.

Having been requested by Lord Brougham to translate for the ‘Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge’ the Mécanique Céleste of Laplace, she greatly popularized its form, and its publication in 1831, under the title of The Mechanism of the Heavens, at once made her famous. She stated “I translated Laplace's work from algebra into common language”. Her other works are the On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834), Physical Geography (1848), and Molecular and Microscopic Science (1869). In 1835, she and Caroline Herschel became the first women members of the Royal Astronomical Society. In 1838 she and her husband went to Italy, where she spent much of the rest of her life.

Named after Mary Somerville:
Somerville College, Oxford,
Somerville Island (74°44'N, 96°10'W), a small island in Barrow Strait, Nunavut, named in 1819 during the first of Sir William Edward Parry's four Arctic expeditions,
5771 Somerville (1987 ST1) a Main-belt Asteroid discovered on September 21, 1987 by E. Bowell at Lowell Observatory Flagstaff, Arizona,
Somerville crater a small lunar crater in the eastern part of the Moon given her name by the International Astronomical Union.



Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

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