Mary Fairfax Somerville, born on December 26, 1780 in Jedburgh, Scotland, was a mathematician of uncommon brilliance. After a very limited formal education, Fairfax educated herself from the family’s library. Though she initially was a poor writer and speller, she was an avid reader and an accomplished painter. Her interest in mathematics was sparked by a series of algebraic symbols and equations used as decoration in a fashion book. Once she began to uncover their meanings, she was hooked, and mathematics became one of the ruling passions and pursuits of her life.
Mary spent much of her time in youth and young adulthood in nearby Edinburgh. She married a cousin, Samuel Greig, at age 24, who didn’t actively interfere with her intellectual pursuits but didn’t support or approve of them, either. He died only three years later.
Back in Scotland, with a newfound independence purchased by her late husband’s money and her respectable status as a young widow with two children, Mary immersed herself in her intellectual pursuits in earnest, despite her family’s disapproval. She solved a mathematical problem placed in the Edinburgh Review by Dr. William Wallace, professor of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh; her successful solution won her a medal and the interest of the mathematical community. Wallace guided her continuing education and introduced her to other mathematicians and scientists. She began to publish articles and books on a wide variety of mathematical and scientific subjects, including for the Royal Society, and would continue to do so for the rest of her life.
Mary received more moral and financial support when she married again in 1812. Her second husband, William Somerville (another cousin, whose mother nursed Mary as an infant), delighted in her work. They initially settled in Edinburgh, where Mary regularly communed with a small but noteworthy circle of intellectuals which included Wallace, Adam Ferguson, and Sir Walter Scott (a long-time family friend). Mary and William later moved to London for his job, where her impressive intellect and accomplishments brought her greater fame. She became friends with other luminaries such as Sir John Herschel and Annabella Milbanke (Lady Byron), who engaged Mary to tutor her daughter. This daughter, Ada Lovelace, also became a noted mathematician and a founding mother of computer science.
For the rest of her long life (she died on November 29th, 1872, about a month before she would have turned 92), Mary continued her research, problem-solving, and writing in science and mathematics, publishing many important works. Her success enabled her to support her family after her husband lost his money in an unsuccessful investment, then had to retire from work due to ill health. She became an active feminist, joining London’s General Committee for Women’s Suffrage and signing John Stuart Mill’s 1866 petition for women’s right to vote.
Learn more about this brilliant woman at:
Mary Fairfax, Mrs William Somerville, 1780 – 1872. Writer on science ~ site page for her portrait at the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland
Mary Fairfax Somerville ~ by Shane Wood for Biographies of Women Mathematicians, Agnes College
Mary Somerville: British Science Writer ~ by Erik Gregersen for the Encyclopædia Britannica
Mary Somerville: Pioneer Woman Mathematician and Scientist ~ by Jone Johnson Lewis for ThoughtCo.com
Mary Somerville: Queen of Science ~ by Ruth Boreham for DangerousWomenProject.org
Mary Somerville, Scientist, Writer and a Woman of Her Time ~ by Alice Prochaska, Somerville College, Oxford
Personal Recollections, from Early Life to Old Age, of Mary Somerville ~ by Mary Somerville, edited and annotated by her daughter Martha Somerville, published in 1874
Scientist Mary Somerville to Appear on Scottish £10 Note ~ by Rob Davies for The Guardian, Feb 10th, 2016
Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!