Mary Somerville, the woman who became the first scientist (part 2)

June 19, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

By the time Mary Somerville was 47 years old in 1827, she had lived what might have seemed like to many a full life for a nineteenth-century female. Actually, more than a full life.

She had grown up the daughter of a British Naval captain, and as a child the circumstances of her family were financially stretched. Mary had not done well with her formal education, but she had managed to teach herself far beyond what any of her headmasters could have accomplished. Mary’s interests included biology, geology, Latin, astronomy, and physics. But she was particularly keen on various forms of mathematics.

She had taught herself algebra and geometry and it made in-depth explorations in many other areas of mathematics.

But domestic obligations had intruded heavily into Mary’s life, and in 1804 she was married to a distant cousin. She moved from her native Scotland to London, where the couple began a family. They had two sons, but in 1807 her husband died, and that tragedy was followed shortly thereafter by the death of her son.

Her husband’s death had left her financially independent, and she and her surviving son then moved back to Scotland. There, she continued with her intellectual explorations. She had become somewhat famous in the small world of mathematicians by solving problems posted by mathematics journals.

In 1811, she married for the second time, again to a distant cousin named William Somerville. William was a physician, and unlike Mary’s first husband, he encouraged her varied intellectual pursuits. The couple moved back to London in 1819. There, they began social and professional contacts with many of the great intellects of the day.

In Mary’s vast and varied reading, she had become familiar with the work of Pierre-Simon LaPlace, a giant in mathematics of the previous generation. Mary had been asked to produce an English translation of LaPlace’s work, something she initially felt unqualified to do. But she was persuaded otherwise and believed, when she started, that the translation would take only a few months. Instead, it took about three years.

The translation wasn’t the hard part of the work, Mary found. What she realized, however, was that she had much to add to what LaPlace had done. Consequently in 1831, Mary’s “translation,” The Mechanisms of the Heavens, was published. It was an astonishing work, and it made her instantly famous.

The high praise that she received for this book — plus the £200 royal stipend that she was awarded — undoubtedly gave her the confidence to carry on with her groundbreaking work. Her second book On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences , was even more ambitious than the first in that it drew together many of the scientific principles that have been developed for individual fields such as botany and astronomy.

In reviewing the book, William Whewell bestowed upon her the title of “scientist”, the first time that term has ever been used. The book sold 15,000 copies, made her a lot of money, and cemented her reputation as one of the few leading intellectuals the day.

Nothing published in the scientific world and as much impact as that book until 1859 when Charles Darwin published his The Origin of the Species.

Her book Physical Geography was published in 1848, and it too was both groundbreaking and profitable. The book was beautifully illustrated by Mary, an accomplished artist in addition to her intellectual feats. It was used as a textbook in British schools until well into the 20th century. A fourth book, Molecular and Microscopic Science, was published in 1869 and was a compendium of the latest discoveries made using a microscope. That book took her nearly a decade to write, but it was beautifully Illustrated and well-received.

Mary had lived much of the last 40 years of her life in Naples, Italy, because of the ill health of her husband. She died in Naples in 1872 at the age of 91, the most celebrated female intellect of her time. She was so well thought of that after her death, Somerville College in Oxford was named in her honor.

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