Notable Women in the Physical Sciences: A Biographical Dictionary

By Benjamin F. Shearer; Barbara S. Shearer | Go to book overview
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noticed. The book helped to define the unsettled term "physical science." An earlier book, Mechanism of the Heavens ( 1831), was an important contribution to the modernization of English mathematics. Although dismissed by some twentieth-century historians as popular writing by a "mere woman," these two books were well received by specialists, informed readers, and many others who became interested in science because of them.

Because Mary Somerville held liberal views, she was attached to the reform elements in science, society, and politics. However, because of her sweet character and good sense, she maintained friendly and civil relations with conservative and even reactionary circles. As a strong, rational, and compassionate woman, she was never a violent activist but preferred to work within the system. Although occasionally criticized for her "unwomanly" pursuit of science, she was accepted at home and abroad as "the premier scientific lady of the ages." Her contemporaries also considered her fulfillment of her role as wife and mother to be exemplary. According to their accounts, she carefully saw to the education of her daughters and son and managed a household with economy and style. She seemed to preserve all the traditional female traits and graces and enjoyed the arts and social occasions. 7

Although her life appears to have been much a case of being in the right places at the right times, Mary and her husband experienced poverty and tragedy. Two sons died in childhood, and Dr. Somerville was not always in a financially secure position. The Somervilles lived in Italy for many years because of William's bad health. The marriage lasted for almost 50 years until William's death in 1860. 8 After he died, Mary remained in Italy and continued to conduct experiments (e.g., one on the solar spectrum) and to write. In 1869, when she was 89 years old, she published her last book and also received the first gold medal awarded by the Italian Geographical Society and the Victoria gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society. When she died in 1872 she was called "the queen of science" by the London Morning Post. 9


Notes
1.
Elizabeth Chambers Patterson, Mary Somerville and the Cultivation of Science, 1815-1840 ( The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1983), p. 89.
2.
Patricia Phillips, The Scientific Lady: A Social History of Women's Scientific Interests, 1520-1918 ( New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990), p. 115.
.
Patterson, Mary Somerville, p. 2.
.
Janet Horowitz Murray, Strong-Minded Women, and Other Lost Voices from Nineteenth-Century England ( New York: Pantheon Books, 1982), pp. 207-208.
.
Patterson, Mary Somerville, pp. 4-5.

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