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Mary Somerville, the Forgotten Self-Taught Genius That Reigned Science

Por: Abril Palomino6 de enero de 2023

This woman changed the course of history; however, it seems that the history books have forgotten her.

Mary Somerville is a name that should be read a lot more in history and science books. Her role in mathematics and physics remains fundamental to the development of technologies that are still in use today, yet her figure and importance remain unrecognized.

Who Was Mary Somerville?

Mary Somerville was born on December 26, 1780, in Jedburgh Scotland. At this time, it was thought that women should not be more than housewives. However, Mary managed to become a writer with a deep knowledge of science, mathematics, and astronomy. It was precisely thanks to her that the word “scientist” was first coined in 1834 to describe her.

Mary Somerville was the fifth of seven children of Vice Admiral Sir William George Fairfax and Margaret Charters Fairfax. She received little formal education and secretly taught herself algebra and geometry as she became interested in such reading outside of academia. In 1804, Mary married Captain Samuel Greig, a Russian consul in London and not at all interested in science. They had two children together before he passed in 1806, leaving Mary as a 25-year-old widow.

A Young Widow Devoted to Science

The passing of her husband provided Mary with a rather rare opportunity for women of her time: she discovered that widowhood and a comfortable inheritance had left her both emotionally and financially independent. No longer controlled by her parents or her husband, she was free to study according to her convictions, and fortunately, she had the means to pursue her scientific interests.

In 1812, Mary married Dr. William Somerville, inspector of the Army Medical Board. William helped Mary quench her interest in science and opened doors that allowed her to meet many of the most outstanding scientists, researchers, and thinkers of the time.

Mary’s scientific research began in the summer of 1825 when she conducted experiments on magnetism. In 1826 she presented her paper entitled The Magnetic Properties of the Violet Rays of the Solar Spectrum to the Royal Society. A defining moment for the history of the world and for Mary came when Lord Brougham, on behalf of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, asked her to translate Laplace’s Exposition du système du monde and the Méchanique céleste into English. When Mary’s translation, entitled The Mechanism of the Heavens, was published in 1831, her fame became imminent.

This work motivated her to do other written works such as The Connection of the Physical Sciences (1834), Physical Geography (1848), and Molecular and Microscopic Science (1869). Her books were very popular thanks to her clear and accessible style, in addition to her deep enthusiasm for the subjects he covered.

The First Scientist

In a review of The Connection of the Physical Sciences, published in 1834, respected critic William Whewell coined the word “scientist” to describe her because until then, the phrase “men of science” was the term used about the profession. “Men and women of science” was a very unwieldy expression, so the problem was solved with the word “scientist.”

In 1835, Mary Somerville and her colleague Caroline Herschel became the first women to be admitted as members of the Royal Astronomical Society; the same year the government granted her an annual pension of 300 pounds in recognition of her work in popularizing science.

Mary and her family moved to Italy in 1838, and there in Naples, she spent the rest of her life working for science until 1872, shortly before her 92nd birthday. A year later, her autobiography was published thanks to the work of her daughter Martha, but it was not commercially successful, and Mary Somerville’s work gradually fell into oblivion.

Somerville College at Oxford University was named after Mary Somerville, as was Somerville Island, off the coast of British Columbia, near the Alaskan border.

Story originally published in Spanish in Cultura Colectiva

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