Aug

26

Not only did Scottish mathematician, science writer, and polymath Mary Fairfax Somerville (December 26, 1780—November 28, 1872) defy the era’s deep-seated bias against women in science, she was the very reason the word “scientist” was coined: When reviewing her seminal second book, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, which Somerville wrote at the age of 54, English polymath and Trinity College master William Whewell was so impressed that he thought it rendered the term “men of science” obsolete and warranted a new, more inclusive descriptor to honor Somerville’s contribution to the field.

Reconstructionist Maria Mitchell, herself a pioneer who paved the way for women in science, captured Somerville’s singular genius in a May 1860 article for The Atlantic:

To read mathematical works is an easy task; the formulae can be learned and their meaning apprehended: to read the most profound of them, with such appreciation that one stands side by side with the great minds who originated them, requires a higher order of intellect; and far-reaching indeed is that which, pondering in the study on a few phenomena known by observation, develops the theory of worlds, traces back for ages their history, and sketches the outline of their future destiny.

Somerville came to science by way of the arts, the era’s traditional domain for young girls. When her art teacher made a passing reference to Euclid and his theories of geometry to explain perspective in painting, noting that they also illuminated the foundations of astronomy and physics, young Mary found herself mesmerized by the promise of a science so expansive and dimensional. So she pleaded with her brother’s science tutor to help her learn about Euclid. But her ascent to science was far from smooth — this early initiative was met with adamant resistance by her father, who found mathematics not only unsuitable but also sanity-jeopardizing for his daughter. Somerville recalls in her journals:

My father came home for a short time, and, somehow or other, finding out what I was about, said to my mother, ‘Peg, we must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a strait jacket one of these days. There was X., who went raving mad about the longitude!’

To correct young Mary’s intellectual aberrations, her parents put her on a steady diet of illustrated ladies’ journals. But those happened to contain puzzles and logical riddles, many of which required mathematical solutions. It was in them that Mary discovered the curious symbols of algebraic equations and was once again enthralled.

Rather than thwarting her budding crush on mathematics, her parents had inadvertently turned it into a lifelong love.

Even so, however, they were bent on sending their daughter down the traditional path destined for women of the era. When she was twenty-four, Mary was married to her distant cousin, Samuel Grieg — a severe man with little faith in women’s capacities beyond their childbearing ability, who forbad Mary from pursuing her studies.

When Grieg died three years later, he left Somerville with two young children, but also with an inheritance and a freedom that opened a new horizon for learning. She soon began corresponding with the mathematician William Wallace at the University of Edinburgh, who mentored her studies in math and astronomy as she at last indulged her intellectual calling.

In 1832, Somerville married another cousin, Dr. William Somerville — a bright and gentle man who thought the world of her, encouraged her studies, and relentlessly helped her master the physical sciences. After the couple moved to London, along with their four children and the two boys from the previous marriage, Somerville met some of the era’s greatest scientific minds, from legendary astronomer William Herschel to computing pioneer Charles Babbage. It was there she became the first mathematical tutor of reconstructionist Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, thus illustrating the beautiful daisy chain of brilliance that unfolds when the hunger for knowledge is set free from the shackles of stereotypes and cultural norms.

In 1835, Somerville and Caroline Herschel, sister of William Herschel and a trailblazing astronomer in her own right, became the first female members of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Above all, however, Somerville embodied the richness of mind and spirit that marks out the true scientist. Maria Mitchell, who had met her in 1858, poignantly observes in her Atlantic essay:

No one can make the acquaintance of this remarkable woman without increased admiration for her. The ascent of the steep and rugged path of science has not unfitted her for the drawing-room circle; the hours of devotion to close study have not been incompatible with the duties of the wife and the mother; the mind that has turned to rigid demonstration has not thereby lost its faith in the truths which figures will not prove.

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