◀ ▲ ▶History / 18th-century / Person: Somerville, Mary Fairfax Greig
Person: Somerville, Mary Fairfax Greig
Mary Somerville wrote many works which influenced Maxwell. Her discussion of a hypothetical planet perturbing Uranus led Adams to his investigation. Somerville College in Oxford was named after her.
Mathematical Profile (Excerpt):
- Margaret Fairfax broke her journey north at Jedburgh where Mary was born.
- When Mary was ten years old she was sent to Miss Primrose's boarding school for girls in Musselburgh (a few miles east of Edinburgh on the Firth of Forth).
- The school in Musselburgh neither gave Mary a happy time nor a good education.
- After this Mary returned to her home in Burntisland but she began to educate herself by reading every book that she could find in her home.
- In order that she might learn the correct skills for a young lady, Mary was sent to a school in Burntisland where she was taught needlework.
- Mary balanced her life between the social life expected of a young lady at this time and her own private study.
- It was through Nasmyth that Mary first became interested in mathematics.
- There was another quite different reason why Mary became interested in studying algebra.
- Mary became so engrossed in mathematics that her parents worried that her health would suffer because of the long hours of study that she put in, usually during the night.
- However Samuel was in the Russian navy and Mary's parents did not allow the marriage to take place until Greig received an appointment in London, for they did not want Mary to go to Russia.
- In this correspondence they discussed the mathematical problems set in the Mathematical Repository and in 1811 Mary received a silver medal for her solution to one of these problems.
- At this time Mary also read Newton's Principia and, at Wallace's suggestion, Laplace's Mécanique Céleste and many other mathematical and astronomical texts.
- At this time William and Mary lived in Edinburgh and, advised by Wallace, Mary read the most advanced French texts of the day.
- In 1817 William and Mary visited Paris and were introduced to the leading scientists there by Biot and Arago (whom they had met in London).
- Mary met Laplace, Poisson, Poinsot, Émile Mathieu and many others.
- Returning to London, Mary and William lived in central London which enabled them to continue close contact with their many scientific friends.
- Mary Somerville published her first paper The magnetic properties of the violet rays of the solar spectrum in the Proceedings of the Royal Society in 1826.
- In 1827 Lord Brougham made a request on behalf of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge for Mary Somerville to translate Laplace's Mécanique Céleste.
- However Mary went far beyond a translation, for she explained in detail the mathematics used by Laplace which was unfamiliar to most mathematicians in England at that time.
- Mary Somerville spent about a year abroad in 1832-33.
- Back in London, Mary helped Ada in her study of mathematics and provided strong encouragement to her.
- Honours now come quickly to Mary Somerville.
- A letter which Mary wrote to Arago contained information important enough for him to have an extract from the letter published as a paper in Comptes Rendus in 1836.
- (William survived for 22 further years there.) Most of the rest of Mary's life was spent in Italy where she wrote many works which influenced Maxwell.
- Many further honours were given to Mary as a result of this publication.
- Mary Somerville was a strong supporter of women's education and women's suffrage.
- When John Stuart Mill, the British philosopher and economist, organised a massive petition to parliament to give women the right to vote, he had Mary put her signature first on the petition.
- Somerville College in Oxford was named after her in 1879 because of her strong support for women's education.
- Many tributes to Mary Somerville sum up her contribution.
Born 26 December 1780, Jedburgh, Roxburghshire, Scotland. Died 29 November 1872, Naples, Italy.
View full biography at MacTutor
Tags relevant for this person:
Astronomy, Origin Scotland, Women
Adapted from other CC BY-SA 4.0 Sources:
- O’Connor, John J; Robertson, Edmund F: MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive