Ruth Boreham was the John Murray Archive Project Curator for the National Library of Scotland when she first came across Mary Somerville in 2005, and has been fascinated by her ever since. Now working at the Scottish Book Trust, she is also researching and writing a biography on Mary.

A definition for me of a dangerous woman is someone who is not prepared to put up with the role society gave her. In the 19th century Queen Victoria represented the most powerful model of womanhood. She established the ideal figure of the Victorian wife and mother and the image of the devoted, home-loving female was used in fiction and by the journalists and politicians of the time. Women, therefore, did not need much education and would do nothing beyond the home. Now and then, however, a woman from the past surprises you with her intellect, her ability, and the fact that she was able to use these in a world dominated by men. Mary Somerville was one such woman:

“I was annoyed that my turn for reading was so much disapproved of, and thought it unjust that women should have been given a desire for knowledge if it were wrong to acquire it.”

Mary was born in 1780 at Jedburgh, Scottish Borders, the home of her maternal aunt. Her father was a naval captain and, having waved him off in London on his latest voyage, her mother was making her way home to Burntisland, Fife, when she got ‘caught short’ and gave birth at her sister’s house. In a twist to Mary’s story, her mother was laid so low after the birth that Mary was suckled by her aunt – this lady later became her mother-in-law as well!

Mary was brought up in the coastal town of Burntisland. With a largely absent father and a mother who did not believe in education, Mary was allowed to run wild and free, spending much time observing the flora and fauna. When her father did return from one of his voyages, he was disappointed to see she lacked education so sent her to a fashionable and expensive boarding-school near Edinburgh. The twelve months Mary spent there became the only formal full-time education of her life. She described her stay in her autobiography:

“A few days after my arrival, although perfectly straight and well made, I was enclosed in stiff stays with a steel busk in front, while above my frock, bands drew my shoulders back until the shoulder-blades met. Then a steel rod, with semi-circle which went under the chin, was clasped to the steel busk on my stays. In this constrained state, I and most of the younger girls, had to prepare our lessons.”

Although she stated that she finished her time there “like a wild animal escaped out of a cage”, she had at least developed a taste for reading, and had some notion of simple arithmetic, grammar and French. She also had poor handwriting and spelling. Mary wasn’t unintelligent though, and took great pains to educate herself. She saw in a ladies magazine an algebra equation which intrigued her and set her on her future path. The family were relatively poor and she was forbidden to stay up all night with a candle reading – so she used to memorise problems from her brother’s books and then work them out while she laid on her bed in the dark, checking the next morning to see if she had got them right.

“I had to take part in the household affairs, and to make and mend my own clothes. I rose early, played on the piano, and painted during the time I could spare in the daylight hours, but I sat up very late reading Euclid. The servants, however, told my mother, ‘It was no wonder the stock of candles was soon exhausted, for Miss Mary sat up reading till a very late hour;’ whereupon an order was given to take away my candle as soon as I was in bed. I had, however, already gone through the first six books of Euclid, and now I was thrown on my memory, which I exercised by beginning at the first book, and demonstrating in my mind a certain number of problems every night, till I could nearly go through the whole.”

She also read those books deemed acceptable for women to at the time, for example the writings of Hannah More and other evangelicals. She later stated “I detested their books for they imposed such restraints and duties that they seemed to have been written to please men”.

At the age of twenty-four Mary married her first husband Captain Samuel Greig, who was a cousin of Mary’s mother. His father was admiral of the Russian Baltic fleet. Samuel was also an officer in the Russian navy, but left active service on marriage to Mary, whose parents were reluctant for her to move to Russia. Instead the couple moved to London, where Samuel took up position as commissioner of the Russian navy and Russian consul. Here, Mary spent much of her time alone. She continued her mathematical and scientific studies through reading as much as she could, although her husband “had a very low opinion of the capacity of my sex, and had neither knowledge of nor interest in science of any kind.” If things had continued this way, her name would mean nothing in the 21st century.

But widowhood came after Mary gave birth to her second child in 1807, and with it a sense of freedom, both financially and socially. She moved back to Scotland with her two young sons and was able to study more openly, although her family often considered her both eccentric and foolish.

In the 1810s Dr William Wallace, professor of Mathematics at Edinburgh University, set a mathematical puzzle. Mary found out and immediately set about to solve it, and in so doing won a prize medal. She impressed Wallace to the extent that he offered her further instruction and a reading list, and also introduced her to his brother John, with whom she read mathematics. This important relationship with the Wallace brothers was the start of Mary’s move into the scientific and mathematical world as an adult.

In 1812 Mary married for a second time. Her new husband was an army doctor called William Somerville. He had a liberal outlook more suited to Mary and was also interested in science (it was his mother who had suckled Mary as a baby). William was very keen for Mary to continue her studies and, when they had to move to London for work reasons, he supported her attendance of lectures at the Royal Institution, studying and eventually writing her books. William also visited libraries and institutions which were not open to women, helped with proof-reading, and arranged for Mary to meet important scientific men. Although many women regarded science as an acceptable pastime, Mary’s intellectual enthusiasm for science and obvious talent led to her acceptance by the ‘serious’ scientific men in London.

Mary’s first publication appeared in the Royal Society’s journal Philosophical Transactions in 1826, a report of her observations on the magnetising power of sunlight (she can be seen discussing some of this with JMW Turner in the 2014 film Mr Turner). Although her deductions were later proved to be incorrect, and she felt ‘heartily ashamed’ for publishing her results, this article is of great importance. It was the first experimental paper by a woman to be published in the journal under her own name, although as women were barred from entering the Society’s premises, William had to go and present her paper instead. It was this publication which helped to establish her reputation as a serious scientist.

Not long after this paper appeared, Mary was approached to translate Pierre Laplace’s Mecanique celete, in which Laplace had presented his nebula hypothesis of the solar system. Mary agreed and it appeared as The Mechanism of the Heavens in 1831, followed by the largely non-mathematical Preliminary Dissertation to the Mechanise of the Heavens. Although not a bestseller, it was generally well received and adopted as a textbook at Cambridge University in 1837. She and her husband were also entertained as official guests for a week at the university. Other accolades came as well: the Royal Society commissioned a marble bust of her, the Royal Irish Academy made her a member and in 1835, she and Caroline Herschel were made the first female honorary members of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Mary also became a friend and tutor to Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, whose mother insisted she had a mathematical education rather than one concerning the arts, for fear she would turn out like her father. Mary introduced Ada to her friend Charles Babbage, and the two of them worked together on Babbage’s differential machine.

Mary became the breadwinner of her household when her second husband, naval man William Somerville, retired on ill health. To improve his well-being, the family moved to Italy, where Mary spent the last 40 years of her life. Distance was not a problem though, and she continued to correspond with the leading scientific men of the day, for example Charles Babbage, John Herschel, Michael Faraday and David Brewster. She also continued to correspond and send manuscripts to her publisher John Murray; her letters talk about the life she was leading in Italy, her writings and passing on gossip about mutual acquaintances.

Mary’s third book, her most popular work, was her two volume Physical Geography, which appeared in 1848. It was an immense success, appearing on university textbook lists for many years. It eventually went through seven editions, many of them revised by Mary herself, who was keen to ensure it was as up to date as possible.

Mary continued to write books until her death – the last book published during her lifetime was On Molecular and Microscopic Science, in 1869. Even after it’s publication, she continued to work, spending four or five hours every morning studying the latest mathematical theories. She died in 1872.

“Whatever difficulty we might experience in the middle of the nineteenth century in choosing a king of science, there could be no question whatever as to the queen of science.” The Morning Post, Monday 2 December 1872

In some ways Mary behaved just as all women were told they should – she married, had children, and spent a lot of time looking after her family. But for me she is dangerous because she wasn’t prepared for this to be the sum total of her life. A thirst for knowledge which led her to educate herself as much as possible, someone who wrote to the leading scientific men of the day and fully expected a reply, Mary was dangerous because she didn’t stop, working right up until her death at the age of 92. But more than that, she was dangerous because she inspired others to follow her footsteps. Perhaps the greatest memorial to her can be found at Oxford University. Somerville college was founded in 1879 to provide an opportunity for women to gain a higher education, who were at that time excluded from membership of the University. The name Somerville was chosen in honour of a formidable role model.


[Quotes taken from Mary’s autobiography, published posthumously by her daughter Martha. Personal recollections, from early life to old age, of Mary Somerville. With selections from her correspondence ]


Feature Image: Mary Somerville by Evert Duykinck – Originally from en.wikipedia; description page is (was) here13:01, 16 April 2004 Magnus Manske 774×1100 (137,872 bytes) ({{msg::PD}}, from Uploaded by User Magnus Manske on en.wikipedia, Public Domain,