An occasional series on great Scots unjustly ignored or forgotten
Put off by the acrid smells of school science laboratories, I avoided the study of science subjects like I did tripe (a sheep’s stomach) boiled in milk. That is my pathetic excuse for knowing bog-all of Mary Somerville until I saw her portrait celebrated with a Google Doodle. I asked around, nobody knew of her.
Next day I started to see her face all over Royal Bank of Scotland £10 pound notes looking every inch a character in a Jane Austen novel. The bank says their new note includes braille for the blind and visually impaired. Braille? Hell’s bells. Mary Somerville must have been some sensuous woman. It was time to do some serious scientific studying.
Mary Grieg Somerville (née Fairfax), was born in Jedburgh in December 1780, one day after Christmas. Whether or not her parents hid her gifts until her birthday or told her Christmas Day was the 26th, is not known. Children with birthdays so close to Christmas day are a pain on the wallet.
Mary was the daughter of Vice-Admiral Sir William George Fairfax. Do not assume ‘admiral’ and ‘Fairfax’ constitutes privileged aristocracy. In does, however, signify he was a Tory and well connected but often short of money. A vice-admiral’s pay was meagre, especially a Scottish one. You had to keep up appearances. Most of her childhood was spent in a modest cottage in Burntisland, Fife, well hidden from polite Edinburgh society.
The short and the long of it
Three of Mary’s siblings died in infancy. Like other families of her day, multiple children were an insurance policy. Large families offered the chance you had at least two around to look after you in old age.
Mary’s childhood was pretty strict, Calvinist, made to listen to passages from the Bible each day, scrubbing floors, washing clothes, doing basic household duties, but it was clear from an early age she preferred to be outside among meadow flowers, birds and animals.
Her father decided she had the makings of an excellent wife worth nurturing and sent her off to boarding School in Musselburgh, just outside Edinburgh, to learn English, grammar, French and arithmetic. What he had in mind for her as a adult was probably embroidery and a wealthy husband, as was the patriarchal ambition of the day. (She created a sampler.) She was taught English good manners and how to courtesy.
An amazing polymath
Almost as soon as I began to seek out biographies of her life I saw similarities to my own childhood, in particular her solitary curiosity of everything around her; living close to the Forth, idling hours along the tide-line looking under seaweed heavy stones for crabs, mussels, collecting shells and coloured stones.
Musselburgh beach was Mary’s hunting ground.
“When the tide was out I spent hours on the sands, looking at the star-fish 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.”
The political animal
A woman needs taught the finer things in life so as not to upset men, but Mary Somerville exuded a fierce intelligence that would trip up Albert Einstein. The French Revolution was in full swing. Exulted and depressed, she wrote in frustration that her father was a Tory.
“The unjust and exaggerated abuse of the Liberal party made me a Liberal. From my earliest years my mind revolved against oppression and tyranny, [and slavery] and I resented the injustice of the world in denying all those privileges of education to my sex which were so lavishly bestowed on men”.
The beginnings of the political and scientific dissenter aside, Mary attended social events to please her father, maintaining a sweet and polite manner as she was educated to do, nicknamed “the Rose of Jedburgh” among Edinburgh’s socialites.
An avid book reader and voracious learner, she soon acquired the skill to raise small talk to well-informed and witty. It was a battle, men were put off by women of an academic bent, and her first husband was no different in that regard.
Standing out from the crowd
As Mary’s learning accumulated so did her ability to write about what she had explored. She was attracted to mathematics After the death of her first husband a barrister and cousin, Samuel, in 1807, she became most interested in mathematics. It was her love of mathematics that led her to study geography and later astronomy. Samuel never frowned on her interests but he did not encourage them either.
She married again in 1812, to another cousin, William Somerville, the polar opposite of Samuel, an inspector of the army medical board, who took pride in his wife’s educational accomplishments. When he was elected to the Royal Society in London, the city they had moved to, her breadth of contacts widened considerably, and the inheritance of her first husband gave her freedom to study subjects she liked.
By 1816 the Somervilles had become friends with such eminent scientists as astronomers Sir William Herschel and Caroline Herschel, metallurgist William Hyde Wollaston, physicist Thomas Young, and mathematician Charles Babbage, who showed the Somervilles the mechanical calculators he was making. Mary was in her element. It was the equivalent of the group of Scottish painters, nicknamed the Glasgow Boys, living in Paris meeting the greats of their day, including Picasso and Monet, pioneers who explained their techniques and ideas to them.
Mixing with the best, Mary was inspired to read write and publish. On a trip to Europe in 1817, she met French physicist François Arago and French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace. She felt immediately comfortable in their company. From those meetings her interest in mathematics grew. In learning, the French connection has always been of greater benefit to Scotland than the American connection, unless you count hamburgers as the food of the poor.
London published her first scientific paper, “On the Magnetizing Power of the More Refrangible Solar Rays”, in 1826, based on her experiments to explore the relationship between light and magnetism. With a mixture of praise and gentlemanly condescension, Sir David Brewster, inventor of the kaleidoscope, wrote that she was “the most extraordinary woman in Europe, a mathematician of the very first rank with all the gentleness of a female”.
On her visits to Scotland she became acquainted with creative people keen to meet the woman with the “intellectual capacity of a scientist”.
With the attention that gets a woman a seven page spread in Hello magazine today, and the intellect to grace the front cover of Nature simultaneously, she wrote “I shall never forget the charm of this little society, especially the supper-parties at Sir Walter Scott’s Abbotsford, when Scott was in the highest glee, telling amusing tales, ancient legends, ghost and witch stories.”
A smart business woman
As a middle-class woman who had known the downside of genteel poverty, she paid particular attention to the royalties from her books, but an excess of hand-painted illustrations cost her publisher dear. John Murray was the publisher of her first book Mechanism, and he remained her publisher throughout her life. Murray lamented that she made little money for his firm but was pleased to have had the honour of publishing the works of such an extraordinary person.
Of all Mary’s books, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences sold most copies, 15,000, to be exact, establishing her reputation in elite science.
In chronological order her books are:
- 1826 “On the magnetizing power of the more refrangible solar rays“
- 1831 Mechanism of the Heavens
- 1832 “A Preliminary Dissertation on the Mechanisms of the Heavens“
- 1834 On the Connection of the Physical Sciences
- 1848 Physical Geography
- 1869 Molecular and Microscopic Science
On 2 February 1826, an experimental physics paper by Mary was read by the Royal Society of London – the UK’s prestigious national academy of sciences. It would become the first paper by a female author to be published in the world’s oldest science publication, Philosophical Transactions, which remains active to this day.
In addition, her work revolutionised the understanding of the solar system at the time and helped astronomer John Couch Adams to discover the planet Neptune. She detected a wobble from Pluto and suggested it was caused by a planet unseen.
Unlike some of the other notables I identify in this series, Mary has not been totally ignored, not when you get your face plastered on Scotland’s paper currency. Somerville Square in Burntisland is named after her family and marks the site of their home. Fife region take note: the plaque reads ‘Mrs Mary Somerville’ and is rusty around the edges.
Somerville College, Oxford, was named after her too, as is Somerville House, a high school for girls in Brisbane, Australia. A Committee Room of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh is named after her. Place names aside, ask anybody who she was and what she did and your liable to get a blank stare in return.
In the autumn of her life she moved to Naples, Italy, with her husband and their four children, where she wrote her autobiography, much of this essay culled from it. Only two daughters survived into adulthood ….. able to look after her in her old age.
In 1868, four years before her death aged 91, a vocal advocate of women’s rights, she was the first person to sign John Stuart Mill’s petition for female suffrage. In her autobiography she wrote, “England’s laws are adverse to women”. How much has changed since then is material for another book.
As is the necessity of these articles on ‘Great Scots’, I rush detail for reasons of brevity but here admit I do it because I am seriously out of my depth knowing much about the subjects she studied and enhanced. What I can say with certainty is, Mary Somerville was one of many Scots who helped shape the modern world.
NOTE: ‘Personal Recollections’ by Mary Somerville, published by Adamant Media