Written by Divija Vaish, a grade 11 student
Mary Somerville, born Mary Fairfax on 26 December 1780, was a Scottish polymath (a person of wide-ranging knowledge) and science writer.
Her scientific publications had such great importance and impact, that it led to the word “scientist” being coined for her. She, jointly with Caroline Herschel, was nominated to be the first female member of the Royal Astronomical Society. One of her experimental physics papers became the first by a female author to be published in the Philosophical Transactions, the world’s oldest science publication that is still active.
As a child, Mary did not receive much of an education. She was taught to read, not write, by her mother. At the age of ten, she was sent to attend a boarding school for girls for a year. When she came back home, she educated herself from her family’s library. The only person who supported her was her uncle, Thomas Somerville.
In 1804, she married her cousin Samuel Grieg who was a captain in the Russian Navy. She continued to study mathematics and although her husband did not prevent her from doing so, he did not support her at all because he thought very lowly of women. In 1812, she married another cousin (Samuel had died in 1807), William Somerville. He wholeheartedly supported her educational endeavors. In 1816, they moved to London where they befriended great scientists like Sir William Herschel and Caroline Herschel, Charles Babbage, and Thomas Young.
The word scientist was coined for her
In 1831, she published The Mechanisms of Heavens, which transfigured the understanding of the solar system. It laid the groundwork for her revolutionary book, The Connection of the Physical Sciences, the third edition of which helped astronomer John Couch Adams discover Neptune. She described the links between different fields of physical science in this book which led to a reviewer coining the term “scientist” (to describe someone who had a multidisciplinary approach to science).
Not only was Mary Somerville a groundbreaking scientist, but she was also an advocate for equal rights. In fact, when philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill assembled a monumental petition to the Parliament to grant women the right to vote, he asked for Somerville’s signature to be the first on the petition.
Mary Somerville’s work continues to shape science as we know it. She remains one of the most prolific scientists of the 19th century, if not of all time. But because she is a woman, she also remains largely unrecognised and uncredited for her work.
She tutored Ada Lovelace, who is believed to have published the first algorithm, to be the first to recognise the full potential of computers and to be one of the first computer programmers. While some people may remember Ada Lovelace, more people remember the person who is said to have invented computers- Charles Babbage. What only a handful of people know is that Babbage’s proposed computer was capable only of performing mathematical functions. It was Lovelace who envisioned the computer as capable of much more, and it was in fact Mary Somerville, queen of science, who guided her there.
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Header image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mary_Somerville_(Fairfax)._Stipple_engraving_by_W._Holl,_185_Wellcome_V0005546EL.jpg