Mrs Mary Somerville

Gender: Female

Marital Status: Married

Born: 1780

Died: 1872

Place of birth: Jedburgh, Roxburghshire, Scotland

Education: Boarding school, Alexander Nasmyth Academy and self-taught

Occupation: Mathematician, astronomer and writer

1866 Petition: Yes

Petition Area: La Spezia, Liguria, Liguria, Italy


Other sources:
Kathryn Neeley, Mary Somerville: Science, Illumination, and the Female Mind (2001)

Database linked sources:

Further Information:

Family information: Father Vice Admiral Sir William George Fairfax. Married and widowed twice, Mary had six children.

Additional Information: When she signed the 1866 suffrage petition (and for most of her later life), Mary was living in Italy, in La Spezia, where she and two female family members also signed the petition. Mary's astonishing and pioneering work as a mathematician, science writer and astronomer meant that John Stuart Mill asked her to be the very first signatory on a later women's suffrage petition to Parliament in 1868.

Other Suffrage Activities: Mary was described upon her death in 1872 as 'the Queen of nineteenth century science'. She was a polymath who studied and wrote on many topics, including astronomy, mathematics, chemistry and microscopy. She published seminal works that changed scientific thinking at a time when women were not able to study science within the formal education system. Her first paper, 'The Magnetic Properties of the Violet Rays of the Solar Spectrum' (1826), prompted kaleidoscope inventer Sir David Brewster to comment that she was 'the most extraordinary woman in Europe' and a mathematician of 'the very first rank'. In her book On the Connection of the Physical Sciences (1834), she brought together for the first time the disciplines of astronomy, physics, chemistry, botany and geology. One year later, she jointly became the first woman member of the Royal Astronomical Society. Another of her books, Physical Geography (1848), remained in use as a textbook into the twentieth century. In her autobiography, Somerville wrote that 'British laws are adverse to women' and outlined all the obstacles she had faced to obtain her education. In 2017, she was voted by the public to appear on the Royal Bank of Scotland £10 note.

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