Mary Somerville

Somerville College in Oxford is much better known than the woman it was named after, Mary Somerville, an eminent scientist who had died 7 years before the founding of the college in 1879. Mary Somerville (1780-1872) was a polymath, an intellectual at a time when women weren’t supposed to be anything of the kind. She seems to have been an intriguing woman, who managed to tread the narrow path between being labelled as that awful thing a ‘blue stocking’, and being dismissed as lightweight and not worthy of being acknowledged by the real (i.e. male) scientists of the day. While away on holiday I read a biography of her by Kathryn A Neely  (Mary Somerville: Science, Illumination and the Female Mind). The book I found both fascinating and frustrating: fascinating because Somerville clearly was a complex mixture of absolute determination to advance her knowledge on many fronts combined with a willingness, and indeed desire, to fulfil many of the societal roles expected of a middle class woman of her day. Frustrating because there was so little explanation of how she managed to transform herself from a very badly educated child, who seems barely to have been literate as she hit her teens, into someone formally invited to translate Laplace’s Méchanique Céleste in middle age.

The basic facts of her life were recorded by Somerville herself in a volume, published posthumously, called Personal Recollections, from Early Life to Old Age of Mary Somerville.   However, the text of this was clearly edited by her daughter Martha, her friend Frances Powers Cobbe and her editor, John Murray III (ie the third head of the publishing house of that name), and various versions of the manuscript exist, showing ways in which she was changing her mind about what to disclose.  Disclosure, openness and honesty were even more of a problem then than now. Her daughter would have been worried about protecting her mother’s good name, not least because Mary had been so successful at being a woman scientist, at a time when there were practically no others who were recognized by their peers. Somerville herself was regarded as sufficiently eminent that she received an annual pension on the civil list, an amount of £200 – later raised to £300 – comparable to male contemporaries whose names live on much more vividly today:  Airy, Faraday, Dalton and Brewster for instance.

I have always regarded myself as a scientist who happens to be a woman, rather than a woman scientist, but that distinction would undoubtedly not have been open to Somerville. She lived at a time when even the term scientist barely existed; indeed the term seems to have been first used in print by William Whewell in a review he wrote about Somerville’s very successful book On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences in 1834. Science itself was not yet a profession and in some ways this seems to have made things easier for Somerville, as she was not treading on any professional bodies’ toes (something that happened later in the 19th century when women tried to enter medical schools).  But, whatever term one might want to use to describe her, it was important for Somerville’s success (and one assumes her happiness) that she was also a very visible model of domesticity. She married twice, the first time unhappily but briefly, the second time to William Somerville who seems to have been immensely supportive and proud of his wife’s increasing fame. She had 2 children by her first husband, 4 by her second; she enjoyed domesticity, dinner parties and was happy to be passive in financial matters, attributes which were probably very important in her acceptance by society since she did not transgress the norms of behaviour expected of a woman. Had she lived later, with the Victorian habit of putting woman on a domestic pedestal and not letting them do much else, she might have found her progression impeded to a much greater extent, as well as her freedom to act and write without male ‘authority’. In this sense her life could be contrasted with Victorian women novelists such as the Bronte Sisters and George Elliott – who felt compelled to write (at least initially in the former case) under male pseudonyms, or the moralising author Charlotte Mary Yonge who passed her stories to John Keble to vet before publishing them.

Neeley, in her book, is anxious to try to identify what it was that Somerville did, in order to work out her qualifications as an eminent scientist. As I mentioned above, Somerville’s first book The Mechanism of the Heavens (published when she was 51), was a translation of Laplace. But it was much more than simply a word-for-word translation, with significant original interpretations and synthesis. Nevertheless, it was clearly a book aimed at a small select group of people with high-level mathematics at their finger tips. Her second book, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences grew out of the first. It was much more ‘popular’ and cemented her reputation. In this text her ability to paint word pictures to make complex ideas accessible to those without the maths skills comes into its own. It is clear that this was one of her key strengths, so that the beauty of her writing was frequently alluded to.

Another facet of Somerville’s writing lay in her deeply held Christian beliefs. Her science, and her desire to write about it, was in large part driven by the need she felt to demonstrate that the world and its form was testament to God’s work. This seems to have been more obvious in her later book Physical Geography, in which the description of the world relates to how it has been structured by the ‘Creator’.

Political and arbitrary divisions are disregarded, the sea and the land are considered only with respect to those great features that have been stamped upon them by the hand of the Almighty.

Such texts are not so likely to find favour these days.

Neeley clearly believes that one of the reasons history has not remembered Somerville in the way she believes it should have done derives from the fact that Somerville’s strengths lay in the interpretation of the science rather than in any original discoveries; indeed that discovery, originality and/or innovation are what distinguishes the male view of what science is and hence who could be deemed a ‘scientist’. I am not convinced by this argument. All of us as scientists are constantly interpreting results – our own and other people’s – and our ability to do that is part of what makes science progress. It is even harder to evaluate whether this take on things has any relevance to how Somerville was viewed in her own times and immediately thereafter. After all, Whewell obviously saw her as the archetypal ‘scientist’ by coining the phrase to describe her.

For me, what was totally missing in Neeley’s book was a real presentation of how young, shy Mary Fairfax became the doyenne of mid-19th century science, so that the Royal Society placed a bust of her in its marble hall. Certain aspects are clear, including those that have entirely modern analogues, such as the use she made of networking. Starting her life, including her early married life, in the purlieus of Edinburgh, she was able to make contact and communicate with many of the young scientific lions of the day in that city, and subsequently build on that when she moved to London. She seems to have used this to great advantage, and been on good terms with many famous names who encouraged and supported her. But how she managed to teach herself the advanced mathematics without even having had the advantage of more than one miserable year of formal schooling is never made plain. Clearly she had the habit of hard work, and somehow managed to fit in her study and reading (as well as painting and apparently practicing the piano for 4 hours a day at at least one point in her life) around her domestic duties and family visits, all without losing the respect of male colleagues and society – male and female – more generally. It is an impressive story, and one that reminds me, as a woman who is not required to act as hostess at regular dinner parties during which I am expected to play the piano after dinner and pass around my watercolours, that things have moved on to the benefit of my sex, at least a trifle.

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6 Responses to Mary Somerville

  1. Mary Somerville is by no means forgotten. For people interested in 19th C science or 19th C British history in general she is a well known figure. She is better known than many more significant 19th C scientist exactly because she was that total rarity a female scientist.

    Whewell didn’t create the term scientist to describe Somerville he created it one year before at the 1833 meeting of the BAAS to describe scientists in general. It is purely a coincidence that he used it for the first time in writing to describe Somerville.

    However great post!

    • I appreciate she hasn’t been forgotten by afficianados, but she is not exactly a household name. Last year, as part of its 350th anniversary celebrations and its commitment to the advancement of women in science, the Royal Society created a list of the women in British history who have had the most influence on science. Mary Somerville featured prominently on this.

      As for the point about Whewell referring to her as a scientist in print as not the first recorded use of the word, I take the point. But it is still the case that his doing so rather counters Neeley’s view that the need for discovery defined the male view of what a scientist was, at least back then.

      • beckyfh says:

        I also enjoyed the post, but have to point out that Whewell was not referring to Somerville when he used the word ‘scientist’ in his review of her book, but to refer the “gentlemen”, allied to various disciplines, at the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He agreed with her point about the “connexion” of the sciences, and much admired her work, but he did not believe that women were capable of original work. He wrote in this review that while women might have some “clearness of perception”, they were essentially ruled by “feeling”, “emotion” and heart over head, while men “the heart and the head are in perpetual negotiation”.

        • Thank you for that correction. Shows the problems of not reading the original source but only what Neeley chose to report. I’m disappointed though to discover this.

  2. Heather says:

    What a fantastic post! I love book reviews. And I spent a year in Oxford as an undergraduate – at Somerville College.

    I, too, would have loved to hear what was behind this, and am always in awe and wonder faced with auto-didacts of all sorts:

    “But how she managed to teach herself the advanced mathematics without even having had the advantage of more than one miserable year of formal schooling is never made plain. Clearly she had the habit of hard work, and somehow managed to fit in her study and reading (as well as painting and apparently practicing the piano for 4 hours a day at at least one point in her life) around her domestic duties and family visits, all without losing the respect of male colleagues and society – male and female – more generally.”

  3. Marion McLean says:

    Mary Somerville was commemorated last year, 2010, in Burntisland. The Museum of Communication devoted space to Mary Somerville in its exhibition,”More Great Scots who Changed the World.” A roadshow was put together a taken round schools and it is hoped that by focusing on the achievements of this remarkable lady more young girls will be encouraged to consider science as a career. The roadshow hits the road again with a talk to older women about the life of Mary Somerville. Her continued work into what was old age is phenomenal and hopefully will provide inspiration for the more mature woman to keep mentally active.