Mary Fairfax Somerville – Mathematics by Candlelight

“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 Fairfax Somerville (1780 – 1872)

The 17th and 18th century women mathematicians and scientists that we’ve looked at so far have been accepted into intellectual circles. Their intelligence and works were recognized and in Italy they were even allowed to teach. They were accepted that is, once they got there. Maria Agnesi, Emilie du Chatelet, and Laura Bassi all had one advantage – parents, or at least fathers, that indulged their intellectual curiosity and gave them the education they craved. Mary Fairfax Somerville did not have this advantage.

As a young girl, Mary Fairfax, born in Jedburgh, Scotland in 1780, was by her own admission a “wild creature.” Her father, a Vice Admiral in the British Navy, was away from home for long periods of time and her mother was quite permissive. With the exception of learning to read the Bible, the catechism, and daily prayers, she received no academic lessons. She was taught “useful” skills, how to care for the garden, preserve fruit, tend the chickens and cows, tasks reserved for the women of the household. Apart from these chores, there were few demands made on her time, so she would roam the countryside and seashore near her home in Burntisland, Scotland observing sea creatures and birds, collecting things, and learning the names of the plants around her home. At night, the stars she could see from her window held equal fascination.

When she was about nine years old, this carefree existence came to an end when her father returned from a long voyage to learn that Mary’s reading skills were minimal and she couldn’t write. At least the basics were expected of young women, so Mary was sent to a school run by Miss Primrose. In spite of her intellectual curiosity, Mary didn’t fair well at the school where she was expected to prepare lessons laced into stiff stays and steel busks designed to improve her posture. The teaching techniques focused on memorization including pages from the dictionary and gave little room for curiosity or critical thinking.  After one year at the school, she returned home and continued her wandering existence, but at least she had increased reading skills that allowed her to enjoy a small number of books in their home. Mary’s only other formal education was a year spent in a local school where she learned to “write a good hand”, basic arithmetic, and the womanly arts of needlework, painting, music, etc.

Mary’s interest in mathematics was piqued by a couple of chance encounters. Once during a party she was paging through a women’s magazine and came across a puzzle. When she looked at the answer it had x’s and y’s in the solution. Curious, she asked a friend who told her that it was something called algebra, but she couldn’t tell her what it was. The second conversation that would set the stage for her life long interest was an overheard conversation between a painting instructor and a male student. The instructor told him that he should study Euclid’s The Elements about geometry to better understand perspective.

Now Mary knew the names of two things she wanted to study, algebra and geometry, but how could she get the required books? To do this she conspired with her brother’s tutor. His skills were limited, but he agreed to obtain books for her and demonstrate the first problems in The Elements. She was on her way! Each night after the rest of the household retired, Mary would study mathematics by candlelight. But then the candle supply started to diminish and it was noticed.

For many people during this time, keeping women away from intellectual pursuits wasn’t just a matter of propriety. Some people believed that women’s minds couldn’t handle it and it would drive them crazy, or that mental exertion would take away from their ability to have children. In essence, that they had a “delicate constitution” that had to be protected. In her recollections of childhood, Mary recalls her father saying, “Peg, we must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a straight-jacket one of these days. There was X who went raving mad about the longitude.” So when her parents discovered that she was studying at night, the servants were instructed to take away her candles. However, at this point she had already progressed through the first six books of Euclid, so she depended on her memory and worked through the problems in her mind each night until she knew them thoroughly.

In 1804, Mary was married to a distant cousin, Samuel Greig. Although not interested himself, it seems that Greig tolerated Mary’s intellectual interests, but the marriage was short-lived. Greig died in 1807 leaving Mary with two boys and a small inheritance. She returned to her parent’s home, but her inheritance gave her an independence that allowed her to continue her studies. She began reading The Mathematical Repository, a journal which aimed at exposing the general public to some of the new developments in mathematics. Through the journal, she began a correspondence with William Wallace a professor at the University of Edinburgh. Wallace provided Mary with a list of important books on mathematics and science, and she began to accumulate a library.

Mary’s second marriage to another cousin, Dr. William Somerville, inspector of the Army Medical Board, was completely different. Dr. Somerville didn’t just tolerate Mary’s interests, he encouraged them. Together they raised a family, traveled, collected specimens, and associated with some of the greatest scientists and mathematicians of the day. They would remain together for the rest of their lives.

Mary’s first work was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London and titled “On the Magnetizing Power of the More Refrangible Solar Rays.” Although she was not a member of the Society at the time (1826) and her paper had to be presented by her husband, it attracted the attention of Lord Brougham, of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. He commissioned her to write what would become probably her greatest and most well-known work, a translation of Laplace’s Mécanique Céleste.  The purpose of the Society of the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge was to make new scientific discoveries accessible to the general public that might not have the educational background to read the original documents. As it turned out Mary had a gift for this type of writing.

Mary had studied Laplace’s work, but being largely self-taught and having doubts about her ability to do it justice, she extracted a promise from Lord Brougham and her husband that if it wasn’t sufficient it would be burned. She spent the next four to five years working on it and when it was complete it was much more than Lord Brougham needed. Her introduction alone met his needs and was published separately, but the entire work was published as The Mechanism of the Heavens and became a favorite among students at Cambridge. She had a gift of being able to communicate in clear, concise terms, complicated subjects, translating as she said “algebra into English.” Her later works include On the Connection of the Physical Sciences published in 1846, Physical Geography in 1848, and Molecular and Microscopic Science in 1860.

Mary Somerville continued writing for the rest of her long life. She died in Naples, Italy in 1872. Her legacy is one of excellently written scientific books that continued in use for many years, but also one of what a woman can do when she has a drive to do it. As she said herself it is indeed “unjust that women should have been given a desire for knowledge if it were wrong to acquire it.”

Personal Recollections from Early Life to Old Age of Mary Somerville by Martha Somerville
Women in Mathematics by Lynn Osen
Notable Women in Mathematics edited by Charlene Morrow and Teri Perl


About Susan Ozmore

I'm a blogger, freelance writer, and former teacher. After 12 years in the telecommunications industry, I taught math and science. I have, however, always loved history! So now I am indulging by reading many great books and sharing what I learn. As Harry Truman said, "The only thing new is the history you don't know." Please comment, I would love to receive your feedback. Thanks for reading.
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4 Responses to Mary Fairfax Somerville – Mathematics by Candlelight

  1. Susan Abernethy says:

    Love this Susan! Good read, interesting woman.

  2. shoofscoop74 says:

    I found this very interesting, but then I might have been “driven to madness” by learning so much from it… ; )

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