Mary Somerville, the world’s first “scientist”

I think it’s great that the word “scientist” has been shedding its predominantly male connotations that it has held onto the past several decades. Partially because it’s awesome that more women are entering into STEM-related industries without as much prejudice or obstruction anymore.

But, more importantly to today’s story, because the word “scientist” was never meant to describe a man. The phrase used to describe a man of science was, in fact, “man of science.”

“Scientist” was specifically coined for women, one woman in particular, Mary Somerville.

But we’ll get to that in a bit. For now, let’s start at the beginning.

In 1780, Mary Fairfax was born in Jedburgh, Scotland, and was raised in Burntisland, a small seaport that was, in many ways, as tragic as its name. The town seemed immune to the Enlightenment’s progress in thought and reason that had transformed the rest of Europe and many of its townspeople, “Burnt Islanders,” as I like to call them, still believed that women were capable of witchcraft. 

Mary’s dad, Admiral Sir William Fairfax, was never formerly educated and believed that education and ambitions academic pursuits could damage the frail female mind. He didn’t believe in witches though so at least he had that going for him. Mary’s mom, Margaret, only read the Bible, sermons, and newspapers and, since her husband was almost always at sea, she was responsibly for similarly-Biblical lessons for Mary.

Margaret also taught Mary how to be “useful.” Lessons in preserving fruit, shelling peas or beans, feeding the chickens and tending to the cow were sandwiched in between sermons, leaving Mary to find comfort late at night in the pages of contraband copies of “Arabian Nights” or “Robinson Crusoe.”

When Mary turned ten, her father shipped her off to a local boarding school, Miss Primrose’s, which, like the rest of the town and like most schools for girls in Scotland, believed that a woman’s only proper place was to be an “Angel of the House.” They were convinced that higher thinking was not only frivolous but dangerous for women because of their “delicate constitutions.” 

Therefore, the entire education at Miss Primrose’s was memorizing pages of the dictionary while strapped into a steel corset in an attempt to teach the girls how to write just well enough to keep accounts, for that was all a woman was expected to know. However, this was completely inefficient and so when Mary came home a year later after doing nothing but attempting to memorize the dictionary, she was understandably restless and still could not write.

But she could read. And she was clever. And so she read Hester Mulso Chapone’s “Letters on the Improvement of the Mind, Addressed to a Young Lady” and she followed the recommended reading listed inside. She also collected fossils and eggs, studied the stars and learned all of the names that she could of the plants around her house.

Young Mary Somerville
Image Credit: WikiArt

All of these educational follies, however, were not to her Pops’ liking. He demanded that his servants never give Mary a candle to read by after bedtime and he enrolled her in schools for dancing and drawing.

Mary grew quite lonely. She thought it “unjust that women should have been given a desire for knowledge if it were wrong to acquire it.” She also wrote later that “I felt in my own breast that women were capable of taking a higher place in creation than that assigned to them.”

One day, in 1793, Mary was flipping through the pages of a fashion magazine for ladies and stumbled upon the puzzle page. The strange looking lines mixed with letters like X’s and Y’s entranced her.

She flipped through books on navigation and astronomy trying to find figures that looked similar but her lack of mathematical language prevented her search from producing anything worthwhile. Because a young girl at the time simply couldn’t ask for a book by Euclid, in order to obtain all of the texts that would be necessary to build her comprehension, she faked an interest in drawing and received books on geometry and math under the guise of improving her knowledge of perspective. Clever, eh?

However, her appetite for knowledge was somewhat thwarted when she was pressured by her family to marry Captain Samuel Greig, her own cousin, in 1804. He also thought that math and science would break a lady’s head and opposed Mary’s studies but, joke’s on him, he died three years later in 1807. Then, one of their two sons died shortly after. That was really sad and I don’t mean to gloss over their deaths but, looking on the bright side, she finally found herself in the position to be financially independent and to fully pursue her studies.

Mary Somerville 1
Image Credit: Google Art Project

She befriended William Wallace who taught mathematics at the University of Edinburgh and acquired his help in putting together a proper library filled with the important mathematics and astronomy texts of the time.

She started to read mathematics journals, immensely popular during her lifetime for people with a higher interest in academics but no university background, and solved their posed math problems until eventually, in 1811, she won a medal for her solution.

Mary married another cousin, Dr. William Somerville, in 1812. He was an army surgeon and a total sweetheart compared to her last husband, supporting Mary’s studies fully and defending her against his family, many of whom thought she should give up academics and, instead, focus on making a “respectable and useful wife.” They had a son and three daughters, moved to London, and studied science together. Mary was super happy for the first time in her life.

Her first public study was “On the Magnetizing Power of the More Refrangible Solar Rays” and was published in 1826. It was this paper that, in 1835, earned her admission into the Royal Society, where she joined Caroline Herschel as the first women to do so.

After this study, Lord Brougham commissioned an account from Mary of Laplace’s “Mecanique Celeste” for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (which was a close second to “The Folding Chair” as the name of this website). Mary spent four to five years secretly studying and writing Laplace, worried that her qualifications and lack of university experience might jeopardize the success of the manuscript. However, she had no need to worry. The writing was a success and “The Mechanism of the Heavens” was lauded heavily. It’s only criticism was that it might have indeed surpassed the level of proficiency in mathematics of most people.

She followed up this work with “On the Connection of the Physical Sciences” in 1846, “Physical Geography” in 1848 (which was widely used in universities for the next fifty years), and “Molecular and Microscopic Science” in 1860.

The connexion
Image Credit: British Heritage

Her work not only advanced scientific achievement but also invented a style of writing about science in a “simple, direct, and uncolored” style, meaning that she didn’t let her words become a dense babble of nerd speak (the second runner-up to the name of the site). This clarity allowed her to bring a broader audience than ever before to scientific knowledge.

This is where the term “scientist” comes into the picture.

The Cambridge don William Whewell invented the word for Mary not just because “man of science,” the phrase for a person of progress at the time, seemed ill fitting for a woman but because of the interdisciplinary nature of her work. She played a game of connect the dots between astronomy, physics, chemistry, mathematics, philosophy, and geology.

Whewell also did not mean for “scientist” to be a unisex word. He wanted a word that praised “the peculiar illumination of the female mind,” and also noted its similarity to the word, “artist.”

This high praise and new occupation earned Mary a wide outreach of followers. One of her books encouraged John Couch Adams to look for Neptune. And that son of a gun found it so…Mary Somerville basically discovered Neptune.

She also used her texts to tutor Ada Lovelace and introduced her to Charles Babbage, forging the legendary relationship that led to the invention of the first computer so…Mary Somerville basically invented the first computer.

Life as a scientist was great.

Unfortunately, the good Dr. Somerville, Mary’s only remaining son, and Mary’s long-valued friend Sir John Herschel, all passed away around the same time in 1860. She wrote “few of my early friends now remain—I am nearly left alone.”

She worked on an autobiography, parts of which were published posthumously by her daughter Martha and most of which were used to construct this article. She had grown deaf and frail as her life drew to an end but her brain was as sharp as ever and she would read books on higher algebra for four or five hours in the morning and continued to solve problems until she eventually died peacefully in Naples at the age of 92.
Her obituary in the London Morning Post dubbed Mary the “Queen of Nineteenth Century Science.”

Somerville Bust
Image Credit: British Heritage

Of all of the many remarkable parts about Mary’s story, perhaps the most astonishing is the fact that a career like hers would have been unthinkable, man or a woman alike, without the tutelage of a university, a qualification growing rapidly more requisite in her lifetime. Such a career was only possible through her persistence and eagerness to learn and chase after the wonders of the world that ignited her interests. 

And to all the men who say women don’t have the capacity to be scientists, back off and let the women do their job.