Mary Fairfax Somerville

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Mary Fairfax Somerville

Mary Fairfax Somerville

Mary Fairfax was born on December 26, 1780 in Jedburgh Scotland. Mary's father was William George Fairfax, a British naval officer who later became Vice-Admiral and her mother was Margaret Charters. She was the fifth of seven children, but three of her sibling died at a young age. As a child, Mary's father was often at sea but despite her family's economic standing, she did not get much of an education. The only lessons she received were from her mother, who taught her how to read the Bible and say her prayers and how to perform household duties. At the age of ten, upon her father's arrival, he discovered that Mary could not write. He immediately sent her to Miss Primrose's boarding school for girls in Musselburgh. However, Mary only spent one unsuccessful year there and still did not know how to write.

Somerville had no exposure to natural history or the physical sciences. Her father was a midshipman by the age of ten and was never formally educated. However, he did have a library and enjoyed reading histories. Her mother was great at expressive writing but rarely read anything but the Bible and newspapers. Because of this and prejudices about women's abilities, Mary's quality of education was hindered. Beginning with her one year stay at Miss Primrose's boarding school, where she was taught by rote learning, which Mary was poor at. Education provided to girls in Scotland at that time were centered around basic arithmetic and basic writing skills, since it was believed that women only belonged in the household. However, despite her family's opposition and traditional beliefs, Mary took it upon herself to further her education. She began reading novels, studying the stars, collecting fossils, and learning about the flora around her home. She also studied Latin, arithmetic, and writing. While reading a woman's magazine, Mary became fascinated by an algebraic symbol that she came upon. After that incident, she set her mind to uncovering its mystery. With the help of her younger brother's tutor, who provided her with algebra texts, Mary began her study of mathematics. Later she obtained a copy of Euclid's Elements of Geometry.


Early Years

In 1804, at the age of 24, Mary married her cousin Samuel Greig. He was a Russian naval officer stationed in London. They had two sons and upon Samuel's death, three years after their wedding; Mary and her sons returned to Scotland. Now financially independent, Mary liberally pursued her studies of mathematics, nature, astronomy, and natural science. In 1812, Mary married another cousin, a surgeon named William Somerville. Together they had three children, one died during infancy. Unlike her first husband, Dr. Somerville was very supportive of Mary's desire to study. Four years later, Dr. Somerville was elected to the Royal Society and moved to London and into the leading scientific circles of the day. They met with the leading European scientist and mathematicians who visited London.After her husband's health deteriorated, they left London and moved to various locations throughout Italy. Mary made very few visits to England and Europe after her husband passed away. During the last couple of years of her life, Mary became deaf and weak but she never stopped self-improving. At the age of 92, Mary died peacefully.

Personal Life

AccomplishmentsMary's first paper, The Magnetic Properties of the Violet Rays of the Solar Spectrum, was published in 1826 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. Although her theory was later refuted, it distinguished her as a skilled scientific writer. Mary published her first book, The Mechanism of the Heavens in 1831. It was a rendition of Laplace's Mecanique Celeste and Newton's Principia. In 1834, she published her second book The Connection of the Physical Sciences, an account of the physical phenomena and connections among the physical sciences. These works earned her admission into the Royal Society in 1835. Mary was one of the first women admitted along with Caroline Herschel. In 1834 she was also elected to honorary membership of the Societe de Physique et d'Histoire Naturelle de Geneve, and to the Royal Irish Academy. . Her discussion of a hypothetical planet perturbing Uranus in the sixth edition of this work in 1842, led Adams to his investigation and subsequent discovery of Neptune. Mary published yet another book, Physical Geography in 1848, at the age of sixty eight. It was one of her most successful books and was widely used in schools and universities for the next fifty years. In 1869, she published Molecular and Microscopic Science. In 1857 she was elected to the American Geographical and Statistical Society and the Italian Geographical Society in 1870. That same year she also received the Victoria Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society. When the British philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill, organized a massive petition to parliament to give women the right to vote, Mary's signature was the first on the Petition. In 1879, Somerville College in Oxford was named after her because of her strong support for women's education.The works Mary Somerville published to gain her credibility were of an important nature not only because they served the goals of the Society for Diffusing Useful Knowledge by making complex scientific topics accessible to a more general audience, but because the kind of scientific writing she mastered--clear and concise, but not shallow-- is prized even today in textbooks and reviews in popular science publications.




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