Roots: Mary Somerville

Mary Somerville fights against social mores to become one of the leading mathematicians of her time.


Royal Bank of Scotland

In 2017, a new polymer £10 note will enter circulation in Scotland, featuring the portrait of a Scottish mathematician and scientist: the honour chosen by public vote.

At a time when democracy and equality are being fervently debated, this issue’s Roots column focuses on the legacy of Mary Somerville.

In 1704, an annual publication was launched: the Ladies’ Diary, or Woman’s Almanack. The subtitle of the periodical explained its remit:

“Containing new improvements in arts and sciences, and many entertaining particulars: designed for the use and diversion of the fair sex.”

The Ladies’ Diary carried the portrait of an important woman on its cover, and contained typical almanac sections of the time with moon phases and eclipse tables, as well as fashion stories and recipes, alongside a section including riddles or enigmas. This section, in particular, proved to be extremely popular and the Ladies’ Diary went on to gain a reputation for mathematical puzzles. Readers of the publication would send in solutions, often using pseudonyms, that were published in the following year’s edition.

The mathematical difficulty of the problems varied widely and contributors to the almanac were both male and female, eminent and unheard of. Women’s participation in the sciences carried a social stigma, and barriers were put up to stop young women who may have shown an aptitude for study. After all, it was believed that it was no good for their health and would be too much of a burden for them.

An example puzzle from the 1798 edition was the following:

It was problems such as these that captured the interest of a young Mary Somerville.

Born Mary Fairfax in 1780 in Jedburgh, a town on the Scottish Borders, she was the daughter of a high-ranking naval officer, Vice-Admiral Sir William George Fairfax. She grew up in Fife, and in keeping with the norms of the time, was not given an education other than being taught to read by her mother. Sir William returned from sea and was very disappointed in Mary’s intellectual progress. In Mary’s words—from her memoirs published posthumously by her daughter, Martha—“he was shocked to find me such a savage”. As a result, Mary was sent to boarding school for twelve months: a period of her life she compared to being caged, forced to recite pages verbatim from Johnson’s dictionary while wearing steel-rodded clothes in order to encourage good deportment.

Mary felt that she had learnt nothing. She found the teaching methods inefficient and her family were disappointed in her progress, especially in relation to the school fees they had paid. She became aware of algebra while attending a tea party with her mother, an event that bored her “exceedingly”. A younger lady, Miss Ogilvie, showed her a periodical filled with “coloured plates of ladies’ dresses, charades and puzzles”. She thought that one of the puzzles was a simple arithmetic teaser, but when she continued reading she found “strange looking lines, mixed with letters, chiefly $x$s and $y$s”. She asked her companion about it, and was introduced to the word ‘algebra’, although Miss Ogilvie did admit that she could tell Mary “nothing about it”.

She often overheard her brother being taught at home and writes about her brother’s tutor:

“I ventured to ask him about algebra and geometry, and begged him, the first time he went to Edinburgh, to buy me something elementary on these subjects, so he soon brought me Euclid and Bonnycastle’s Algebra, which were the books used in the schools at that time. Now I had got what I so long and earnestly desired. I asked Mr Craw to hear me demonstrate a few problems in the first book of Euclid and then I continued the study alone with courage and assiduity, knowing I was on the right road.”

Unfortunately, her family attempted to extinguish rather than quench this thirst for knowledge:

“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 […] My father came home for a short time, and, somehow or other, finding out what I was about, said to my mother, “Peg, we must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a strait jacket one of these days.”

Mary Somerville

Mary’s first marriage to Captain Samuel Greig continued this theme, and her husband’s prejudices towards educated women stifled her academic progress. Widowed after three years of marriage, Mary’s inheritance from Greig allowed her to pursue her interests fervently. She won a medal for solving a prize problem in the journal Mathematical Repository; but it was only after her second marriage to Dr William Somerville in 1812 that her efforts began to be truly supported. From this point onwards, Mary never looked back: she published widely, became one of the first women members of the Royal Astronomical Society, and encouraged her friend, Ada Lovelace, to study mathematics.

In 1866, Mary sent her signature from her home in Italy to be included on the first petition to parliament on women’s suffrage, organised by Barbara Bodichon and delivered by John Stuart Mill.

Mary Somerville’s tenacity and refusal to have her enthusiasm curtailed serves as an example for us all. She is an inspiration.

Emma is a teacher from Grimsby, UK.

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