Mary Somerville, A Domestic Icon of Science

By Michal Meyer

On the morning of February 14, 1834, Charles Greville, registrar of the Privy Council read a sermon about some of the best-known scientific figures of the day, including one of the “great luminaries” a woman named Mary Somerville. Greville already knew of Somerville as a mathematician and a translator of the Marquis de Laplace’s Mécanique Céleste (Mechanism of the Heavens), a highly mathematical work of celestial mechanics, which was viewed as a completion of Isaac Newton’s great project of unifying the earth and the heavens. For Greville, the “subject of astronomy is so sublime that one shrinks into a sense of nothingness in contemplating it, and can’t help regarding those who have mastered the mighty process and advanced the limits of the science as beings of another order.”

That same evening he happened to meet that “being of another order” while at a party. Greville could not take his eyes off Somerville. But his observations left him with mixed feelings and he later confided to his diary his “surprise and something like incredulity,” for he found the great mathematician “a mincing, smirking person, fan in hand, gliding about the room, talking nothings and nonsense.” Especially shocking was the juxtaposition of a woman’s everyday pleasure in social chatter combined with the knowledge that this particular woman had Laplace as “her plaything and Newton her acquaintance,” which gave “too striking a contrast not to torment the brain.”

In the 1830s, Somerville was an elite participant in science, well-known for her her 1831 publication of Mechanism of the Heavens. She had published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London and would go on to publish again, though as a woman she could not be a member of that increasingly elite scientific society. Nor could Somerville visit the Astronomical Society’s library. If she needed to consult a text, she sent a male friend to rummage for it. Somerville was both esteemed and excluded.

During Somerville’s time, science was not yet a profession. It was practiced by clergymen, men with money, and doctors. Women could not become clergymen or doctors, but they could be a part of the doing of science, their work often absorbed into the research of husbands and brothers and published under the name of the male member of the family. In fact, Somerville’s friend, the geologist Charles Lyell, believed that had Somerville been married to a mathematician rather than a doctor, the world would never have heard her name. “[W]e should never have heard of her work. She would have merged it in her husband’s, and passed it off as his.” Such actions were an open secret among the scientific men and women of the day.

According to Lyell, this was not due to any inherent female inferiority but rather to the nature of social relations at the time. Female fame was perilous; it could not be shared and thus laid its owner open to charges of self-aggrandizement, a charge especially dangerous when aimed at women. Somerville minimized her financial stake in the success of her books, which in actual fact was an important source of family income. She took care to ensure that no hint of the family’s dire financial state during much of the 1830s ever reached the public. An accusation of writing for money might well have damaged her reputation.

Though Somerville published under her own name and was recognized as a practitioner of science, she  also recognized the fragility of her reputation and the difficulties of navigating the domestic private sphere, which was seen as female, and the public sphere, which was seen as male. She lacked the wealth and social status of an Ada Lovelace, a woman who could afford to flout conventions. Instead, Somerville took care to meet them, presenting herself as a fashionable, domesticated woman and avoided social peril by emphasizing her domesticity and her disinterested approach, that is, her love of the subject for its own sake. For example, Somerville always carefully tidied away any of her scientific writing when visitors called and showed off her domestic skills by making orange marmalade for William Edward Parry’s Arctic expedition. Admirers of Somerville often linked her domestic skills to her scientific ones. Alexander Young, a visiting American, met Somerville on a visit to London and described her rhapsodically as “a lady, who to profound acquisitions in science, and a practical skill in several of the elegant arts, adds the faithful discharge of all household duties.”

Somerville recognized that her science would have to speak for itself, for she, as a woman, could not be its spokesman. The result occasionally produced surprise and consternation when those, like Charles Greville, who knew only of her scientific reputation first met her. Greville, an observer of rather than a participant in science, was looking for a goddess of science, but such a creature could not have survived in early 19th century England.

By 1838, Somerville was well-known in scientific and public circles, for science was a part of the broader educated culture. She had published the well-received On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences four years earlier, cementing her reputation as someone who could both do science and communicate it, at least to those already knowledgeable in the sciences. In 1835, the British government had given her a small pension as recognition for her work, and the Royal Astronomical Society made her an honorary member.

While her reputation was founded on Mechanism of the Heavens, Somerville’s biggest impact was not in original research, but in original synthesis, which began with Connexion and continued with Physical Geography (first published in 1848). Science was expanding its boundaries so rapidly that it appeared in danger of fragmenting. Gone were the days when natural philosophers were expected to have a broad grasp of the sciences. Those who wanted to understand what was happening elsewhere in the sciences might turn to Somerville’s syntheses for knowledge.

William Whewell,  a highly respected figure in 19th century science, was well aware of science’s increasingly fragmentary nature, of its “proclivity to separation and dismemberment,” and the barriers to knowledge this posed. Whewell coined the word “scientist” in the early 1830s and first put it to use in his 1834 review of Somerville’s Connexion in order to highlight the changing nature of the sciences. The old term of “natural philosopher” no longer accurately described the increasingly specialized workers in science. Somerville, in his view, helped to reunify the physical sciences by showing how the pieces fit together, linking such disparate elements as electricity, magnetism, heat, light, and sound. Science could once again be seen as a forest of knowledge rather than a jumble of individual trees, or as Whewell put it, “science as an extensive and splendid prospect, in which we see the relative positions and bearings of many parts.”

By the time Somerville died in 1872, science had settled into specialized disciplines and even sub-disciplines. Her synthesizing approach became increasingly difficult to apply to broad swathes of science. She was a relic of an earlier age, but her name retained its resonance and power, enough for John Stuart Mill to ask to add her signature to his parliamentary petition to give women the vote. In 1869, he told Somerville that her name gave the petition “the weight and importance derived from the signature which headed it.”

Further Reading 

Elizabeth Chambers Patterson, Mary Somerville and the Cultivation of Science, 1815-1840 (Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1983).

Kathryn Neeley, Mary Somerville: Science, Illumination, and the Female Mind (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

Michal grew up in Israel, Australia, and New Zealand. She started her working life as a meteorologist in New Zealand, where she got to deal with lots of interesting weather and an erupting volcano. She then accidentally moved into journalism in Israel. Eventually, she decided to combine the science and the writing and entered the PhD program in history at the University of Florida, where she wrote a dissertation on Mary Somerville. Since then, she had been the editor in chief of Distillations magazine at the Chemical Heritage Foundation.
Contact: [email protected]; @michalme