Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Amazing Mrs Somerville (1780-1872) ~ Queen of Nineteenth Century Science

by Linda Root

Engraving from bust of  Mary Somerville

There is an institution of higher learning at Oxford University known as Somerville College, named in honor of an astronomer-mathematician born on the grounds of Jedburgh Abbey in Roxburghshire in the year 1780. The child was born in Jedburgh quite by accident. William George Fairfax,  a high-ranking naval officer,  was stationed in London but deployed at the time of its birth, possibly serving in the Americas during the latter phases of the rebellion of the Colonies. His heavily pregnant wife Margaret Charters Fairfax was headed for their home in Musselburgh in Fifeshire for her lying-in.

She had stopped in Jedburgh to visit her sister, Martha Somerville when Margaret went into labor and soon gave birth to a daughter. Margaret Fairfax did not easily recover, and unable to continue her homeward journey. Fortunately, her sister Martha had recently given birth to a daughter of her own, and was available to serve as her newborn niece's wet nurse during their stay on the Borders.  She was christened Mary, and as soon as her mother was well enough to travel, she was hauled to the shores of the Firth of Forth to begin her incredible life.

Somerville College viewed from the Quad, Oxford University

As an adult in her middle years, Mary Fairfax Somerville was dubbed the Queen of Nineteenth Century Science by one of her distinguished peers. Among her lifetime achievements, she inspired John Couch Adams to hypothesize and locate the existence of the planet Neptune by observing the orbital perturbation of newly discovered Uranus, no mean feat  for a Fifeshire female child  whose parents disapproved of their marriageable daughter's attraction to what was known as  'natural philosophy' and sent her to a private school to learn embroidery and needlework.

Property of the Jedburgh Historical Walks

Many years later when Mary Fairfax Somerville was almost thirty and a widow, she married Doctor William Somerville, son of her favorite aunt and uncle.  It was a love match. Mary's daughter Martha Somerville recalls her mother's frequent jokes about having been suckled at birth by her future mother-in-law. Although she was a Fifeshire lass, Jedburgh lays claim to her as one of their famous residents. Her birth in Jedburgh is commemorated in a recently erected blue plaque placed at the site of Somerville House, honoring its famous if temporary occupant.

Mary Fairfax Somerville,  along with Caroline Herschel, became the first females admitted to the Royal Astronomical Society. She was a recognized mathematician and geographer and an enthusiastic geologist.  However, her successes did not come easily.  Once when she was wee, her father returned from sea duty and discovered that  Mary had been taught to read, but she had not been taught to write.  He ordered the deficiency addressed because bookkeepers made the best gudewives.

Vice-Admiral Wm. George Fairfax
The Making of a Proper Young Lady

Mary Fairfax displayed a love of the physical world of Burntisland in Fifeshire, but she was equally enchanted by the knowledge of her brother’s tutors, a luxury to which she was not entitled in her own right. She began to take a particular interest in mathematics. According to legend, one evening when Mary was less than ten years old, she found an unsolved algebraic equation left on a chalkboard when her brother’s tutor had been unable to solve it. When he came back the following morning for another try, he discovered she had solved it overnight. Mary tells it less dramatically, but from that time forward, he included her in her brother’s lessons when he could get away with it, and soon realized she was his equal. Soon she was better at it than he was, and her parents balked.

Mary’s youthful academic pursuits were discouraged by a family grooming her for a position in British society. Her father was alarmed when Mary surreptitiously acquired and copied Euclid’s Elements of Geometry when she should have been preparing herself for marriage, and decided to take action. He and Mary’s mother shared a common belief held even by educated Scots: women’s constitutions were too fragile to withstand the stresses of the more challenging academic pursuits. When they interceded and shipped her to Miss Primrose's Boarding School in Musselburgh, they did so with her best interests at heart. She later acknowledged they thought they were saving her from an early death. She, however, saw it differently, In her biography, she described it as going 'from perfect liberty to perpetual restraint.' For whatever reason, she only lasted a year, and when she left there, she felt   'like a wild animal freed of its cage.'

Licensed by Mary Somerville Welcome to Wikimedia via  Creative Commons.

Mary's return to Burntisland was a reprieve, but not a victory. She was sent to a  local school to study needlework. It is not too surprising that she displayed a talent for it, and continued to enjoy embroidery and needlepoint throughout her life. When the family took a house in Edinburgh as a part-time residence when Mary was entering her teens, she was given art lessons by accomplished artist Alexander Nasmyth. .

Of the many portraits, busts and cartoon sketches made of Mary Somerville during her life, my favorite a is a self-portrait that hangs at Somerville College, Oxford. Nasmyth obviously had a talented pupil.. When she felt frustrated by the limitations placed on her studies occasioned by her sex, she visited  Jedburgh, where her uncle, Thomas Somerville encouraged her interests in the world around her and taught her Latin.   Doctor Somerville was a minister of the powerful Scottish Kirk and a historian who appreciated the genius of his petite and unimposing niece.  He must have been delighted when as a young widow, she married his son. 

But I am getting ahead of the story.  There were obstacles young Mary Fairfax had yet to overcome, and some of them were personal.

The Russian Consul and His  Dutiful Wife, Mary Fairfax Greig

Painting and needlework were not the only art forms at which Mary Somerville excelled.  She was a proficient musician and practiced the piano almost every morning.   During the winter months when the family lived in Edinburgh, Mary took dancing lessons.  She had many friends among the educated young people in the city.  Mary had grown into a very pretty young woman who was referred to in Edinburgh society as the Rose of Jedwood.  When her daughter Martha Somerville annotated her mother's memoirs to co-author her biography, she included her mother's light-hearted lament that no artist had painted her portrait or sculpted her likeness until she was famous.  She wished they had taken note of her when she was young and lovely. However, by consensus, even at age ninety she was a handsome woman who always appeared years younger than her age.  At age 24, other than her family's lack of wealth, she was an ideal candidate on the marriage market,  possessed of the good looks, pedigree, manners, and skills becoming in a perfect wife.  Her only fault was her genius, which her family encouraged her to keep hidden least she drive her suitors off.  Had they been successful, we would not have heard of her.

When Mary was twenty-four, she met and soon married her mother's cousin Samuel Greig, the son of the Samuel Greig often dubbed the Father of the Russian Navy.  The senior Samuel Greig had been summoned to Russia by Catherine the Great to upgrade her navy.  When Mary met his son, he was a commissioner of the Russian navy and Russian Consul for Britain. At some point, Captain Greig sailed a frigate into the Firth of Forth and disembarked to pay a visit to his Scottish cousin Mrs. Fairfax. When Captain Greig sought the hand of his cousin's daughter Mary, her parents were delighted. Although William George Fairfax has been knighted for his part in the naval victory over the Dutch at the Battle of Camperdown, his only monetary award was a  pension of a size unlikely to attract suitors for his daughters.  The only stipulation they imposed upon the prospective bridegroom was that he establish a permanent residence in London and promise not to carry their daughter off to the Steppes of what had become an unruly Russia after Catherine’s death.  At the time of the marriage, it is unlikely that Mary knew of her husband’s disdain of women and his total lack of interest in mathematics and the physical sciences.

 On the way to London as a bride, Mary had a small amount of money her mother had pressed into her hand, knowing she left with an unimpressive trousseau and lacked the gowns expected of a young society wife in London. En route, Mary happened upon a painting in a shop window that depicted the surrender of the Dutch Admiral de Winter to her father's commander Admiral Duncan, with her father shown in the background.  She bought the painting and forewent the gown.

Surrender at of the Dutch at the naval battle at Camperdown{PD-Art}

 It would be unfair to call Mary’s time in London as Mrs. Samuel Grief as an unhappy interlude.
 She enjoyed the company of other educated women, most of them interested in the arts.  
The couple started their marriage in a small but well-situated house.  At first, money was sparse, and Mary lacked the wardrobe to attend the balls popular with her friends.  Eventually, her brother-in-law visited from Russian and provided her with luxurious furs, and her husband came into a substantial sum of money. She resumed taking art lessons and became a highly regarded amateur landscape artist. Between her arrival in London and her husband’s death in 1807, she gave birth to a daughter and two sons, one of whom became a well-known Scottish barrister, government official, and scholar. The second son died young. Other than tending to her children, her mornings were free, and she resumed her study of mathematics.  She purchased a comprehensive scientific library. She also learned to speak rudimentary French, and enjoyed riding with her friends. 

A young woman of Mary’s background could move about freely in London society. Although she shunned the life of a socialite, she made friends of both sexes in the scientific community.  From her writing and other sources, it appears her husband did not order her to cease her academic pursuits as long as he was not expected to support them or partake. After his death in 1807, she said of him:
 'He had a very low opinion of the capacity of my sex, and had neither knowledge of, nor interest in, science of any kind.'

Enter, the incredible Mrs Somersville:

When Samuel Greig died in London in 1807, she returned to Scotland as a widow of considerable means,  free to resume her prior studies.  Her second marriage to Doctor Thomas  Somerville, the son of the mentor of her early youth and the aunt who suckled her was a happy one.  Doctor Somerville had an academic bent of his own, and he gave Mary his wholehearted support.  Her biography is filled with memoirs of their travels, their shared love of nature, and their affection for one another.  They had five children including Martha, who co-authored the biography that has provided too many anecdotes to incorporated in a post. I shall include but a few below.

Mary Somerville always referred to her husband as Somerville and herself as Mrs.Somerville.  They were a successful team.  With her career approaching its Zenith, she willingly left London because of his health, extending their time together by twenty years, just as he had always let her needs supersede his own.  For both of them, the best was yet to come. They endured wars in Tuscany, volcanic eruptions, storms on Lake Como, and the Napoleonic Wars. Their friends included crowned heads of Europe and innovative thinkers in virtually every field and on many continents. In summary, theirs was a love match.

Memories from childhood in Burntisland:

Mary’s father was a horticulturist by hobby. He loved his garden.  He often came back from his maritime adventures toting sacks of tulips and other bulbous plants from Holland. Mary often stood by while he culled plants with blooms he considered imperfect. Any curling of a leaf, misalignment of petals or discoloration and the specimen would be removed. At the time, England was ruled by George the Third, who was very popular with the Fifeshire Scots. There was a tradition in Burntisland to put a nosegay in every window on June 4th in celebration of the King’s birthday, In the Fairfax household, the occasion was usually followed on June 5th by a rude awakening to a ravaged garden.

Mary remembered playing in the tall grasses that grew on the edge of a meadow when flocks of wild geese flew over and the well-fed, fat domestic geese they kept in their yard struggled but failed to join them.  She also remarks in her memoirs how much she loved birds.  During the cruel winters along the Firth of Forth, she would open the shutters so robins could come in to feed.

Scenes from the Life of Mrs. Somersville: 

 Doctor Somerville was a great friend and admirer of the Marquis d’ LaFayette.  When the Somervilles were in France, the visited with LaFayette’s two daughters who had stayed with him during his long stint in prison.  According to Mary, her husband was much intrigued by the girls' warmth and lively gesticulation, so different from the cold manner of the Scots.

When Mary was in Rome, she was invited to a dinner party to meet an American writer who wished an introduction, and who in Mary’s report of the occasion remains unnamed   When Mary arrived, she was introduced to the woman who had been so eager to meet her, but was quickly brushed aside.  The host had seated the two women together so they could talk, but again, Mary was ignored and snubbed. Having endured enough abuse, Mary left the table and moved to another location where she made the acquaintance of the celebrated poetess Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who became her friend for the remainder of Elizabeth's short life.

Following the death of her second husband, Mary’s wealth and reputation allowed her to continue to pursue her interests into her waning years and also afforded her opportunities to advocate higher education for women.  One of the most notable scientists of her day remarked to her when she was inducted into the Royal Society that she and her co-inductee Caroline Herschel and a third woman of which he knew nothing were the only women whose works revealed a mastery of his arguments. The mystery woman, he confessed, was an elusive woman named Madame Grieg.  He had no idea what had become of her, he said, unaware that  Mary Greig and Mrs.Somerville were one and the same. Among the many tributes to her multi-faceted genius, several historical sites, many institutions of learning including Somerville College at Oxford, an Island in the Barrow Straits and an asteroid bear her name.

The Sunset Years in Italy:

During her last decade in Italy following her husband’s death in 1860. Mary Somerville wrote: Age has not abated my zeal for the emancipation of my sex from the unreasonable prejudice too prevalent in Great Britain against a literary and scientific education for women.  She, without a degree, campaigned vigorously to allow women into advanced degree programs.  Her petitions were denied, but her passions lingered.

Shortly before her death, she discussed in her Personal Reflections such topics as her lifelong fear of the dark, her love of birds, and her excitement at the eruption of Vesuvius.  Her daughters trekked up the mountain to observe the lava flow, but Mrs. Somerville, at nearly 92, delegated the task to them.
Said her daughter Martha, who was with her at the end: Her pure spirit passed away so gently that those around her scarcely perceived when she left them. It was the beautiful and painless close of a noble and a happy life. 

Wikimedia, English Cemetery in Naples, with statue of Mrs. Somerville in the background

No recitation of her scientific awards and publications tells the story of the amazing woman buried in a Naples Garden.  Although her name has been given to a crater on the Moon and a mid-belt asteroid, she grieved the passing of a single starling, spoke against the inhumanity of slavery and opened her shutters in winter so the robins could come inside to forage. Thank you for joining me in my glimpse of a most amazing woman.

Author's note:  Personal anecdotes are from Somerville, Mary (2012-05-12). Personal Recollections, from Early Life to Old Age, of Mary Somerville (p. 230).  . Kindle Edition.

About the Author:  Linda Root is the author of The First Marie and the Queen of Scots, The Last Knight and the Queen of Scots, and four books in The Legacy of the Queen of Scots series.  The fifth, Deliverance of the Lamb, is coming in early 2016.  She lives in the Southern California high desert community of Yucca Valley with her husband Chris and two giant wooly Alaskan Malamutes, Maxx and Maya.  She is a retired major crimes prosecutor, a member of the Marie Stuart Society, and of the California State Bar and the Bar of the Supreme Court of the United States. Her books can be found on Amazon.


  1. An amazing woman! And as I recall, she tutored that other mathematical genius, Ada Byron Lovelace, th world's first computer programmer!

  2. Nice. A 19th century woman scientist. There were women who succeeded in science very well.


  3. How wonderful ... a happy over-achiever. A well-rounded human being. People like Mary Somerville need to be studied in middle school so young women see they can be themselves, and the boys see that their future wife's talents won't hurt them. The freedom to be a total adult benefits us all.

  4. She reminds me of Margaret Fuller in that she was such a genius, it couldn't be denied during her own lifetime,an oppressive age for women generally

  5. Your would think as a Scotswoman I would have known more about this remarkable lady - especially as she was educated in my home town of Musselburgh - but I blame an education system that neither taught us about female high achievers nor encouraged girls to study science subjects. The dark ages are not that long ago! Thanks to Linda for highlighting her story.


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