Mary Somerville – The Polymath

By Jaime Seltzer

Mary Somerville was born in December of 1780. She was born to two uneducated parents in Scotland, in a time where it was thought – and I do not kid – that women were too weak-minded for strenuous intellectual activity, and that the pursuit of it would quite literally set them insane. An educated woman could still be accused of witchcraft. It should come as no surprise, then, that Mary grew up something of a wild animal, barely able to read, and not able to write or do any mathematics at all. It was only when her father returned home after a long journey that it struck him that Mary was in complete ignorance, and he sent her off to boarding school.

School at that time would be nearly unrecognizable to a student today. There were no group projects, no educational films, no art, and certainly no science: instead, the students in Mary’s class were charged with memorizing pages of the dictionary, with the sting of a switch for motivation. Mary spent a miserable year there before her parents figured she knew enough for all intents and purposes, if ‘all intents and purposes’ was reading a recipe book and figuring household accounts.

So it was that little Mary was left to figure out what she wanted to know, and how much she wanted to know about it. She read Robinson Crusoe and Arabian Nights, but perhaps it’s already clear that her parents were not exactly voracious readers. After she had devoured those, she was driven to distraction with boredom.

In 1826, Mary published her first scientific study, and unlike many of the women who would come after her, she dared to it under her own name, with a defiant Mrs. placed in front.

Somehow she came across a copy of Letters on the Improvement of the Mind, Addressed to a Young Lady, which was a surprising find: a how-to guide written by an aunt to her niece on what a young lady must know. The book’s very premise – that women ought to know anything beyond the needs of keeping a house – was news to Mary, but it sounded like good news to her. Soon, she was gamboling up and down the beaches near her house, and studying ‘natural history’ as it was called then. She read Shakespeare, examined and plotted the paths of the stars, and learned all the names, Latin and common, of the plants in her little corner of Scotland. Studying without a tutor or a friend might have been lonesome, but it also insulated her against the knowledge of how her native curiosity might be viewed by others.

She could not keep her rambles from her family, of course, who heartily disapproved. An aunt advised Mary’s mother to purchase drawing classes, dancing classes, and needlepoint to ‘redirect’ Mary’s energies to more acceptable tasks. Her father made dire pronouncements that Mary was would end up in the madhouse if she kept trying to learn things with her weak, girly brain. That idea held such weight at the time that her parents began confiscating candles from her room so that she could no longer read or study at night! Mary grew quiet and withdrawn, since her favorite topics were taboo, and felt disliked and oppressed by her family.

One day, Mary was at a tea party – a boring, irritating gathering where women cooed over the latest fashions, something in which Mary had little interest – when a friend beckoned her over to a fashion magazine that also happened to boast puzzles. Everyone knew Mary liked puzzles, and invited her to try one; but not only could Mary not solve it, she wasn’t even certain what she was looking it. At first it looked like math, but it was full of letters. “What is this?” she inquired.

“It’s algebra,” her friend replied, offhand.

“What’s that?” asked Mary, all innocent. She had seen her first arithmetic problem at age thirteen, after all.

Though the girls laughed, none could actually answer her question, and in a way they seemed to find the question itself impertinent. Oh, that Mary! Mary left extraordinarily frustrated, and determined to find out what ‘x’ was supposed to mean.

Mary Somerville

Mary Somerville and her Women in Science card.

Getting her hands on a book of mathematics would be like scoring contraband. Mary rightly assumed that she could not simply approach a bookseller and demand instructional treatises on algebra. Not only would her request be denied, her parents would be informed. She had to be sneaky.

Mary approached a family friend and began to wax poetic about her newfound love of illustration, painting, and all forms of other artistic, womanly pursuits. After a few minutes she began to slip in some distress over not understanding the idea of perspective and that perhaps some mathematics could help her learn. It was ever so complicated!

So Mary got her math books, but she was thwarted at every turn by her family, who by now had her under intense scrutiny every day. If she progressed too far in her learning of any subject, they vehemently denied her access to more information, keeping Mary an advanced novice in anything she set her hand to. If you believe that sounds more or less like an attempt to keep Mary specifically and women in general uneducated, uninformed, and powerless to change their fates, you would be exactly right.

Many women found a certain freedom in marriage, but not Mary. Her family had hand-picked her husband; he was, in fact, already a cousin. Though it does not appear that he was ever cruel to Mary, he shared her family’s disapproval of women of learning, and Mary was very nearly as squelched down as before.

However, he died when she was still a young woman, leaving her one living son, and a certain degree of freedom to do as she chose. She immediately brought to life her family’s worst fears by purchasing a veritable library of books on science and mathematics, corresponding with men of learning, and beginning to solve the math puzzles of the early 1800s because it sounded like fun. In 1811, she won a prize from The Mathematical Repository, a journal written for beginners in mathematics, when she solved one of their toughest puzzles.

Her second match, William Somerville, was a much better choice for Mary. He was an army doctor, and loved that Mary was as captivated by science and math as he was. Together, they traipsed about the countryside gathering rocks and plant samples and the like, presumably while thumbing their noses at everybody. They had four children together and insulted everyone by being exceedingly happy with each other.

In 1826, Mary published her first scientific study, and unlike many of the women who would come after her, she dared to it under her own name, with a defiant Mrs. placed in front. The study, entitled On the magnetizing Power of the more refrangible Solar Rays was a tidy little experiment in which she covered half of a needle with dark paper and exposed the other end of it to violet light that had been passed through a prism. Shockingly, the needle developed a magnetic pole and acted like a magnet. Somerville was one of the first to demonstrate the connection between light and magnetism, around fifty years before the description of the Faraday Effect. While her paper was flawed, the logical way she had carried out her study and reported her findings gained her admission to the Royal Society, where she and Catherine Herschel tied as the first two women admitted. The term ‘man of science’ came to be replaced by a new word, because of Mary: ‘scientist’.

In 1827, a group called The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge asked Mary was asked to begin translating the Mécanique Céleste (the Mechanism of Heaven) into English. The work was a heavy treatise on calculus and algebra, and Mary ended up not just translating but expanding the work to include more examples and to clarify its points. After Mécanique Céleste, she wrote several other textbooks that scholars considered far more accessible than their counterparts by other authors: On the Connection of the Physical Sciences in in 1846, Physical Geography in 1848, and Molecular and Microscopic Science in 1860. Somerville was one of the pioneers in bringing science and mathematics to the understanding of the general public.

Mary Somerville continued to work and solve problems in algebra until she passed away at the age of 92: an author, an educator, a scientist, a mathematician, and a brilliantly skilled artist despite her initial trickery. The painting most often used in books and websites is in fact a self-portrait, painted by a truly self-made woman.

Beilsmith, K. (2010, June 5). Mary Somerville. In Women in European History. Retrieved September 28, 2015, from
Eve, D. (2015). The Magnificent Folly of Mary Somerville. In Later Bloomer – Creativity Never Gets Old!. Retrieved from
Riddle, L. (1995, April). Mary Somerville. In Biographies of Women Mathematicians: Agnes Scott College. Retrieved from

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  1. Pingback: Sophie Germain – the Queen of Primes | Luana Games

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