Academic journal article Michigan Academician

The Life of Mary Fairfax Somerville, Mathematician and Scientist: A Study in Contrasts

Academic journal article Michigan Academician

The Life of Mary Fairfax Somerville, Mathematician and Scientist: A Study in Contrasts

Article excerpt


The life of Mary Somerville can aptly be described as a study in contrasts. How did Mary Fairfax, born into genteel poverty at a time when few women had access to formal education, eventually become the "Queen of Nineteenth Century Science"? This ordinary woman accomplished the extraordinary, yet a careful review of her life exposes many inconsistencies. What do these discrepancies tell us about Mary? What do they tell us about the time period in which she lived? An analysis of her life and work reveals that she was far more than an amateur scholar. This Victorian "popularizer" was, without question, a scientist.


The cultural awakening of 18th century Europe, characterized by its emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge through rational thought, gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the sweeping social and cultural changes that occurred during the subsequent century. In particular, European society in the nineteenth century was typified by a growing awareness of the importance of science and industry in everyday life. This heightened emphasis on science and technology was also accompanied by a growing desire to educate an increasingly literate society. As a result, various organizations actively promoted the publication and distribution of popular science works. These works, written in a narrative or expository style, were typically produced by journalists or writers, as opposed to professional scientists. In fact, at the start of the nineteenth century, the pursuit of science was still considered a gentleman's pastime. Science was not the highly specialized discipline it is today.

Among the most famous of these popular science writers was Mary Fairfax Somerville. Born at a time when women had few rights, as well as limited access to formal education, this remarkable woman eventually became the "Queen of Nineteenth-Century Science" (Patterson 1969). Amazingly, despite her modest upbringing, Mary was able to establish herself among the leading scientists of her day. What factors contributed to this success? In order to gain an appreciation for her achievements, as well as her significance in the history of mathematics and science, it is essential to more closely examine her life. Such an analysis can aptly be called a study in contrasts, since one encounters many inconsistencies, discrepancies that shed light on both Mary and the time period in which she lived.

The purposes of this article are to provide background on Mary's early life, taking note of her struggles and the setbacks she encountered; to outline her life as an academic, identifying her important scientific achievements; to highlight the contrasts in her life, suggesting their underlying significance; and to establish Mary Somerville as one of the 19th century's eminent scientists.


Mary Fairfax, the daughter of Sir William Fairfax and his wife, Martha Charters Fairfax, was born into genteel poverty in Jedburgh, Scotland on December 26, 1780. Her father, an officer in the English navy, was often away at sea, and Mary spent much of her childhood with her mother in the small seaport town of Burntisland. These early years were formative ones and played a role in fostering Mary's lifelong love of nature. In her memoir, she would later speak fondly of the "abundance of common fruit and vegetables" in their garden (Somerville and Somerville 1874, 10-11) "which was much frequented by birds" (Somerville and Somerville 1874, 18). Her mother taught her "to read the Bible" and to say her prayers "morning and evening," but she was otherwise allowed "to grow up a wild creature" (Somerville and Somerville 1874, 17). When she was eight or nine, her father, upon return, was shocked to find her "such a savage" (Somerville and Somerville 1874, 20), and at ten years of age, Mary was sent to boarding school. Unfortunately, she found the methods of teaching "extremely tedious and inefficient" (Somerville and Somerville 1874, 22), and feeling "utterly wretched" (Somerville and Somerville 1874, 21), she went home after a year. …

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