The Lives and Times of Pioneering Women in Physics

Mary Somerville, and her work in astronomy and optics

By Professor Allan Chapman, Fellow of Wadham College Oxford


Professor Chapman is a historian with an interest in science and the history of science.

Women have beeen interested in physics for a very long time despite the interference of men and one of the earliest areas of the subject that they worked on was astronomy. As mentioned in a previous article, Agloanike was credited as the first woman astronomer.


Plutarch wrote that she was “thoroughly acquainted with the periods of the full moon when it is subject to eclipse, and, knowing beforehand the time when the moon was due to be overtaken by the earth’s shadow, imposed upon the women, and made them all believe that she was drawing down the moon.”

Of course most of the men in her society thought she was a witch or a sorceress.

Things didn’t improve for women until the latter part of the 20th century but there were some notable exceptions.

Mary Fairfax Somerville was born on 26th September 1780 in the manse (a former clergyman’s house) of Jedburgh, in the Borders, the house of her mother’s sister.


Jedburgh, Mary Somerville’s Birthplace

Her father was Vice-Admiral Sir William George Fairfax and her mother, Margaret, was a member of a renowned scottish family of lawyers and barristers.

Mary’s family home was at Burntisland, Fife however her father spent little time there as he was always at sea. The main result of this was that she did not know him and when he returned from a voyage when she was ten he was appalled at what a little savage she had become. She had received little formal education outside of learning from the Bible and spent her time running wild, exploring the Scottish coast while avoiding dolls and other feminine toys and unfortunately learning to swear like a trooper. She was certainly no nineteenth century icon. She did not learn to read very well, could not write at all, and knew nothing of numbers or language. At the time, daughters were expected to focus on domestic and social matters but they were also expected to master at least minimal reading and writing skills.

The picture below left shows Mary’s childhood home


To improve matters Mary was sent for a year of tuition to Musselburgh, an expensive boarding school, where she learnt very little. When she returned her reading had improved, she could write and perform simple arithmetic a little and she knew a little French. She did not like the stifiling educational methods which focused on repetition and memorisation but it did give her a lifelong love of reading.

Mary found that she could read books in a short period of time and retain the information. She was able to learn everything with a disciplined, analytical memory. She had a formidable intellect.

On returning home her education continued informally with elementary geography and astronomy. She learnt navigation symbols from her father but found her education limited compared to what her brother was receiving. She received latin tuition from her uncle, Dr Thomas Somerville, who described her as an eager student.

Once, listening in to her brother receive tutoring in mathematics, Mary answered when he could not; impressed, his tutor allowed her to continue with lessons unofficially and her life changed profoundly at the age of 15, when she encountered algebraic symbols while reading a fashion magazine. Mary became intrigued and wanted to learn more. She studied algebra on her own, and craved more knowledge.

She also studied art with Alexander Nasmyth in Edinburgh, who taught her about perspective – inspired, she managed to obtain a copy of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, and began to teach herself from it despite opposition from her parents. She realised it was the basis for understanding astronomy and other sciences.


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. Her father believed (as was common at the time) that:-

“… the strain of abstract thought would injure the tender female frame” and he felt that studying had caused the death of her younger sister.

Despite the efforts of her parents to stop her—which included confiscating candles to prevent her from studying at night—she continued to learn. She read her father’s books on navigation and read and committed to memory six of his books, as well as other classics. She managed to dodge the lack of candles at night by memorising formulas she wanted to work on and solving problems in her head in the dark. Her brother’s tutor continued to help her by buying the books she needed, as proper women did not go into bookshops.

Despite her secret studies she continued in the traditional roles of the daughter of a well-connected family, attending social events and maintaining a sweet and polite manner – she was nicknamed “the Rose of Jedburgh” among Edinburgh socialites.


In 1804, Somerville was forced to marry her first cousin, Admiral Sir Samuel Grieg, a captain in the Russian navy. The couple moved to London, where Grieg was employed as the Russian navy’s consul. While raising two sons, Woronzow and George, Somerville tried to study science and maths in her free time. However, her husband did not think women should have intellectual pursuits and discouraged these efforts. The tense marriage came to an end when Grieg died in September 1807, soon followed by their son George. After the death of her husband and son, Somerville resumed her studies, shortly before returning to Scotland with her surviving son.

The money that Mary inherited from her husband allowed her to continue studying.Though she maintained her family, domestic, and social obligations, many members of her family, as well as friends, derided her decision to keep up her studies. Somerville did have some encouragement from leading intellectuals and scholars in Edinburgh, including William Wallace, who became professor of mathematics at Edinburgh University. Somerville studied higher mathematics and physical astronomy. She read Isaac Newton’s book Principia and began to submit solutions to problems posted in contests run by mathematics journals. In 1811, Somerville won a silver prize for solving a diaphiantine equations problem in Mathematical Repository.

In 1812 she married another cousin, Dr William Somerville, who was an inspector of the army medical board. He was very supportive and incredibly proud of her intellect. He encouraged and helped her with her study of the physical sciences and through her marriage to him she was able to meet some of the most eminent scientists of the day, who had also become aware of her talents.


William Somerville (1771 – 25 June 1860) was a Scottish physician and inspector of the Army Medical Board.

Mathematical knowledge in the early part of the nineteenth century Britain was lagging behind France mainly due the continued reverence of Newton but despite the Napoleonic wars Mary was able to buy French maths books. She was facinated by crystallography and astronomy and William encouraged her to take up greek, geology, botany and minerology.

When the war with Napoleon was over William was decommisioned and in 1816 the family moved to London where he was elected to the Royal Society of Surgeons. The move enabled Mary to meet the leading scientists of the day, and learn about their latest work.

The family traveled to Europe on a regular basis as William spent time treating wealthy people with TB who had relocated thinking that warmer temperatures would help with their symptoms, and Mary began corresponding with scientists there. On her travels she found that she was famous and was feted by mathematicians. In 1817 she met Laplace, who called her “England’s famous mathematician” although he paid her the slightly back-handed compliment of saying that she was the only woman to understand his mathematical work..


Pierre-Simon, marquis de Laplace (23 March 1749 – 5 March 1827) was an influential French scholar whose work was important to the development of mathematics, statistics, physics, and astronomy.

In 1819 the family settled back in England because William obtained a job as chief physician (and later, 1832 when the two jobs were combined, chief surgeon) for the Chelsea pensioners. This was a dream job for him as he and Mary could mix with the science elite of the time.

Mary established a name for herself, and was respected by those interested in reforming the British scientific society.

Their friends included George Airy, John Herschel, William Herschel, George Peacock, and Charles Babbage. Mary wrote:-

“We frequently went to see Mr Babbage while he was making his calculating machines.”


Charles Babbage, FRS (26 December 1791 – 18 October 1871) was an English polymath. A mathematician, philosopher, inventor and mechanical engineer, Babbage is best remembered for originating the concept of a programmable computer.

In 1826 Mary published her first paper, “The magnetic properties of the violet rays of the solar spectrum” in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. She had been interested in a possible connection between magnetism and the violet part of the solar spectrum – two phenomena that gripped the scientific imagination of the day. Her painstaking experiment used a prism to separate out the violet component of sunlight and focus it onto a steel needle which she had carefully demagnetised. To test whether the needle had been magnetised she then floated it in a dish of water to see if it would respond to a magnetic field by moving like the pointer of a compass. Her results appeared to show that the needle did indeed become magnetised by its exposure to violet light although with the equipment available at the time it was hard to be absolutely sure.

She was not allowed to present the paper herself because women were not allowed to attend meetings of the Society at that time so it was actually read by her husband on her behalf.


Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville) prepares to demonstrate her experiment on violet light to J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall) and his household (Paul Jesson & Dorothy Atkinson) in Mike Leigh’s 2014 film Mr Turner.

Mary later retracted her claim that violet rays could magnetise a steel needle when further experiments failed to give the same result – exactly as any modern scientist would do when new and better evidence becomes available.

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 (amazingly Mary’s husband was asked for his permission first). 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. When completed, the work with title The Mechanism of the Heavens was far too large to be published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge and John Herschel recommended its publication to the publisher John Murray. The book appeared in 1831 and was an immediate success both in terms of the number of copies sold and the praise given to it. It was so good that it was used to teach undergraduates at Cambridge.,_1st_Baron_Brougham_and_Vaux


Henry Peter Brougham, 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux (19 September 1778 – 7 May 1868) was a British statesman who became Lord Chancellor of Great Britain.


Sir John Frederick William Herschel, 1st Baronet, KH, FRS (7 March 1792 – 11 May 1871) was an English polymath, mathematician, astronomer, chemist, inventor, and experimental photographer, who in some years also did valuable botanical work. He was the son of astronomer William Herschel.

Mary spent about a year abroad in 1832-33, mainly in Paris where she renewed old friendships with the mathematicians there, and where she worked on her next book “The connection of the physical sciences”, a book on the current state of physics, which was published in 1834. This turned out to be a very profitable book and her discussion of a hypothetical planet perturbing Uranus in the sixth edition (1842) of this work led John Couch Adams to his investigation and subsequent discovery of Neptune.


John Couch Adams FRS (5 June 1819 – 21 January 1892) was a British mathematician and astronomer and his most famous achievement was predicting the existence and position of Neptune, using only mathematics.

Mary was elected to honorary membership of the Société de Physique et d’Histoire Naturelle de Genève in 1834 and, in the same year, to the Royal Irish Academy. Sir Robert Peel, British prime minister from 1834-35 and again from 1841-46, awarded her a civil pension of £200 per annum, during his first period of office. This was increased to £300 in 1837 by William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne (British prime minister from 1835-41). (below left),_2nd_Viscount_Melbourne (below right)



Mary Somerville, portrait by Thomas Phillips, 1834. From the Scottish National Portrait Gallery

In 1835 she was elected to the Royal Astronomical Society. At the time female members were against the rules, but the society in 1835 initiated a new rank of “Honorary Member” specifically to be able to admit Mary Somerville and Caroline Herschel (30 years Mary’s senior).


Caroline Lucretia Herschel (16 March 1750 – 9 January 1848) was a German British astronomer and the sister of astronomer Sir William Herschel with whom she worked throughout both of their careers. Her most significant contributions to astronomy were the discoveries of several comets and in particular the periodic comet 35P/Herschel-Rigollet, which bears her name.

Mary was friends with Thomas Young and reconstructed some of his diffraction experiments including the single slit diffraction experiment.


Thomas Young (13 June 1773 – 10 May 1829) was an English polymath

In Mary’s version of the diffraction experiment she mounted a human hair and shone light on it. A diffraction pattern was seen behind the hair. You can see a modern version of the experiment with a laser below.


In 1838 the Somerville family moved to Italy because William became ill and this caused financial problems. Italy was chosen because the climate was deemed beneficial but more importantly it was a cheap place to live. She continued her work while caring for him.

In 1848 Mary published Physical Geography which was the first geography text to be written in English and considered her most popular original work.

She was elected to the American Geographical and Statistical Society in 1857. She was also awarded the Geographical Society of Florence’s Victor Emmanuel Gold Medal, and elected to the American Philosophical Society.

Her last work of note was the two-volume On Molecular and Microscopic Science, published in 1869 when she was eighty-nine. It was a summary of the most recent discoveries in chemistry and physics and even though the material was generally obsolete by the time the books came out they were well thought of. Despite the outdated nature of On Molecular and Microscopic Science, Somerville’s contributions to science were widely recognised.

In 1870 she was awarded the Victoria Gold Medal at the Royal Geographic Society of London. Although she was a patron of the Society, Somerville never achieved member status because of her gender.

In 1870 she also became a member of the Italian Geographical Society.

Mary’s writing influenced many scientists of the day including James Clerk Maxwell. She looked into double stars and realised that Newton’s laws applied to all of space.

With the deaths of William (1860), who she always referred to by his surname, only remaining son (1865), and valued friend Sir John Herschel, Mary Fairfax Somerville wrote in 1871, “Few of my early friends now remain–I am nearly left alone”. John Herschel had been her checker and proof reader. Their correspondence still survives.

She lived to complete two more works before her death. She also completed her autobiography, of which parts were published by her daughter Martha after her death (1873). It consisted of reminiscences and is of great interest both for what they reveal of her own character and life and the glimpses they afford of the literary and scientific society of bygone times.

Although deaf and frail in her later years, she retained her mental faculties and even continued to, in her words, “read books on the higher algebra for four or five hours in the morning, and even to solve problems”.

She died peacefully at the age of ninety two on the 28th November 1872 in Naples, still correcting proofs at her desk. She was buried there in the English Cemetery.

She was most definitely an inspiration.


The photograph above shows the English Cemetery, Naples. Statue of Mary Somerville is in the background

She did not regard herself as a prude, prig or a feminist and hated “blue stockings” but throughout her life she championed education for women.

A bluestocking is an educated, intellectual woman, more specifically a member of the 18th-century Blue Stockings Society led by the hostess and critic Elizabeth Montagu (1720–1800), the “Queen of the Blues”, and including Elizabeth Vesey (1715–91), Hester Chapone (1727–1801), and the classicist Elizabeth Carter (1717–1806). In the following generation came Hester Lynch Piozzi (1741–1821), Hannah More (1745–1833), and Frances Burney (1752–1840).


Caricature of blue stockings by Rowlandson

She had a formidable intellect and was a successful teacher.

Despite the general attitude to women at the time Mary did benefit from the fact that science was not considered a job do be done by gentlemen. Most Men went to university to study the classics. Those men who did do science did not earn their living by it. William Herschel, for instance, earned his living as a musician.


Somerville College, Oxford, was named after Mary Somerville, as is Somerville House, Burntisland, where she lived for a time and Somerville House, a high school for girls in Brisbane, Australia. One of the Committee Rooms of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh has been named after her. The term “scientist” was coined by William Whewell in an 1834 review of her On the Connexion of the Sciences.,_Oxford

Somerville College Hall

Somerville’s papers were collected at the Bodleian Library of Oxford University. She was honoured by Oxford through the naming of Somerville Hall, the creation of the Mary Somerville scholarship for women in maths, and the establishment of Somerville College (in 1879).

Somerville Island (74°44’N, 96°10’W), a small island in Barrow Strait, Nunavut, was named after her by Sir William Edward Parry in 1819 during the first of the four Arctic expeditions under his command.

5771 Somerville (1987 ST1) is a main-belt asteroid discovered on 21 September 1987 by E. Bowell at Lowell Observatory Flagstaff, Arizona, and named for her.

Somerville crater is a small lunar crater in the eastern part of the Moon. It lies to the east of the prominent crater Langrenus, and was designated Langrenus J before being given her name by the International Astronomical Union. It is one of a handful of lunar craters named after a woman.

Mary’s bibliography

1825 “The Magnetic Properties of the Violet Rays of the Solar Spectrum”

1830 “The Mechanisms of the Heavens”

1832 “A Preliminary Dissertation on the Mechanisms of the Heavens”

1834 “On the Connection of the Physical Sciences”

1848 “Physical Geography”

1869 “Molecular and Microscopic Science”

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