Mary Somerville, the first person to be called a ‘scientist’ (part 1)

June 28, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

William Whewell had a problem.

In 1834, he was reviewing a newly-published book titled On the Connexion of the Physical SciencesIt was an extraordinary work, something that he had never encountered before. It was a book that took on incomplete and fragmented knowledge of the fields of astronomy, mathematics, physics, geology, and chemistry and brought all of them together into a beautiful tapestry.

Whewell was no stranger to the idea that one could reach across specific fields of inquiry to come up with larger conclusions. He was known as a polymath because of his wide variety of Interests in poetry, theology, astronomy, mathematics, and many other such topics. At this point in his own career he was well on his way to be coming a Master at Trinity College in Cambridge.

In writing his review, when he would normally have referred to the author as a mathematician or an astronomer or whatever other field the author specialized in, he might also have referred to the author as a “ man of science.” None of those monikers, however, was appropriate in this case because the author of this extraordinary book did not specialize in any single field. More importantly, the author was not a man.

She was Mary Somerville, a Scottish woman and one of the most versatile intellects of her age.

Whewell needed a new term for her, so he invented one. He came up with the word “scientist.” We have been using that term ever since.

And it is especially fitting that Mary Somerville was the first person to have that term bestowed upon her. Mary was born as Mary Fairfax, daughter of an English naval officer, in Jedburgh, Scotland, in 1780. The family lived in genteel poverty, with Mary’s mother having to keep farm animals and grow crops to make ends meet when her husband was at sea.

Mary was something of a wild child, roaming through fields and meadows and taking in only a small part of the little formal education that was offered to her. Her mother taught her to read but not to write. But when her father returned home from sea at one point and found that she could not write, he sent her to a boarding school in Musselburgh. That did not go well. Mary chafed at the school’s emphasis on repetition and memorization.

Mary’s active intellect needed something else. When she was about 15 years old, she noticed an algebraic equation that was an illustration in a fashion magazine. She was intrigued. She managed to get her hands on an algebra book and learned how to solve algebraic equations on her own. It was the beginning of her lifelong love of mathematics.

Her parents did not encourage this particular love affair, however. They actively tried to stop her pursuits by taking her her candles away so that she could not read at night.

Despite their opposition, Mary continued her self education by teaching herself to read Latin so that she could understand Euclid and his writings on geometry. Mary’s parents finally got their way in 1804 when she married a distant cousin, Samuel Greig, and the family moved to London. Mary fulfilled her role as a modern wife, producing two sons and spending most of her time taking care of them. Her husband did not encourage Mary’s intellectual endeavors.

In 1807, tragedy struck when Mary’s husband died, and that was followed shortly thereafter by the death of one of her sons. Her husband’s death left her with enough income so that she could move back to Scotland with her other son and once again take up her studies of mathematics and other fields of Interest. She began to submit solutions to problems posted in mathematics journals, and she even won a prize for doing so.

Again, her family objected to her continued studies. It was undoubtedly a great relief to them when Mary married William Somerville in 1812. William was a medical man, and he encouraged Mary to expand her interests, which eventually included Greek, geology, botany, and mineralogy. The couple moved to London where William was elected to the Royal Society of surgeons, which allowed them to meet and mix with some of the great intellects of the day.

During the next decade and a half, Mary continued to delve into her many interests in all parts of the scientific world and to impress its leaders with her reasoning and her writing.

In 1827, when Mary was 47 years old, Lord Henry Brougham, the head of the society for the diffusion of useful knowledge, asked Mary to take on the task of translating Simon-Pierre LaPlace’s Celestial Mechanics. At first, Mary did not think she was up to the task because she did not have a university education. The job, however, appeared to be one of simple translation and would probably take only a few months, so she decided to tackle it.

The task turned out to be far longer than a few months and far more complex than simple translation. But when it was done, what she produced set Mary on the road to intellectual fame.

Next week: Mary Somerville’s impact on the entirety of science

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