Mary Somerville 1780-1872
A Great Scientist of her time

1. Growing Up
2. First Marriage
3. Mary Somerville's second marriage, scientific education and writing.
4. Mary Somerville the Woman
5. Conclusion


It was something of a surprise to find Ruth Watts, claiming Mary Somerville as a Unitarian in: Gender, Power and the Unitarians in England 1760-1860, who: '…rejecting the Tory and sternly patriarchal views in which she grew up, turned to liberalism and Unitarianism'. (p. 95) In the process of learning more about this famous figure I will try to show a way of living and writing, based on Unitarian values and principles, yet beyond any rigid denominational boundaries. The only published autobiographical material was written at the end of her long life in Personal Recollections of Mary Somerville, (PR) edited and published posthumously by her daughter Martha. In order to understand how Unitarian principles underpin her scientific writing I have drawn on Kathryn A. Neeley's excellent scientific biography: Mary Somerville – Science, Illumination, and the Female Mind. (SI)

Growing up

Mary Somerville was born Mary Fairfax, in Jedburgh, Scotland, at the manse, where her aunt and uncle lived, the latter being a liberal minded Minister of the Kirk of Scotland. The people, who lived there, came to play a significant part in Mary's life. Her father was mostly away at sea, throughout her life. Mary and her family returned to their home at Burntisland, a small seaport on the coast of Fife. As a small girl she would spend many hours on the links and beach, considering the heavens, observing birds, collecting shells and interesting specimens of local flora. The only thing to spoil her freedom was the discipline of learning a strict catechism and church observance. Her daughter Martha would later write:

All things fair were a joy to her…Everything in nature spoke to her of that great God who created all things, the grand and sublimely beautiful as well as the exquisite loveliness of minute objects…This fervour of religious feeling accompanied her through life, and very early she shook off all that was dark and narrow in the creed of her first instructors for a purer and a happier faith. (PR p.9)

When her father returned he was appalled at her lack of education and Mary was eventually sent to boarding school for a year. This didn't suit her at all and it wasn't until she was thirteen, when the family took apartments in Edinburgh for a few months, that she was sent to a writing school, studied basic arithmetic and for the 'feminine accomplishments' learned to play the piano and studied art under Nasmyth. In order to understand perspective he recommended reading Euclid's Elements of Geometry, but this wasn't readily available to her at home. Her father felt that this thirst for education must be put a stop to and said to Mary's mother: "Peg, we must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a strait jacket one of these days. There was X., who went raving mad about the longitude." (PR p.30) This was in sharp contrast to her uncle in Jedburgh. Visiting her aunt and uncle, he responded to Mary's thirst for knowledge, introducing her to Shakespeare and the Classics. Sundays were no longer severe and the liberal attitudes of the Somerville's impressed the young Mary at an impressionable age, sowing the seeds of her later liberalism and tolerance that are evident in her life and writing.

However, on her return to Burntisland, she felt more isolated than ever as she longed to learn more. A home tutor for her brother moved in and she asked him about algebra and geometry. He too recommended Euclid and also an introductory book of algebra. These her brother obtained for her on his next visit to Edinburgh. She continued to feel frustrated, when reading one of her father's books on navigation, she failed to understand it. She would read well into the night but complaints about the extravagant use of candles resulted in her learning to work through, in her mind, what she had written earlier, creating and solving many difficult questions. This was an excellent practice, for later, when she would need to hold complex material in her head, for her scientific writing. Calculus, algebra and art remained the lifelong passions right to the end of Mary's long life.

First Marriage

Although Mary was growing up to be an attractive woman, the family situation had always been one of genteel poverty and with no dowry her marriage prospects were limited. Conditions nationwide were dire then during the Napoleonic Wars. Cruelty and oppression, combined with a succession of poor harvests resulted in liberal views being quashed. However at age 24 she married a distant cousin Samuel Greig, a Russian consul for Britain and moved to his bachelor's house in London 'that was exceedingly small and uncomfortable'. In her obituary in The Inquirer, he is said to have taken '…great pleasure in mathematical science' but this was of no consequence in Mary's life, as in Personal Recollections, she writes:

I was alone the whole of the day, so I continued my mathematical and other pursuits, but under great disadvantages; for although my husband did not prevent me from studying, I met with no sympathy whatsoever from him, as he had a very low opinion of the capacity of my sex, and had neither knowledge nor interest in science of any kind.(PR p.41)

This was to be a short marriage lasting only three years after which her husband died leaving her with two sons, only one surviving into adulthood. Woronzow, became a barrister retaining a close relationship with his mother throughout his life. As a widow moving back to Burntisland with two small boys her status was quite different to that of being a dependent daughter.

Mary Somerville's second marriage, scientific education and writing.

In 1812 she married her cousin Dr William Somerville, who thereafter she referred to as just Somerville, the son of her uncle at Jedburgh. Like his father, William was liberal, a well respected physician/scientist and member of the Royal Institute. This well-suited couple associated socially with the leading scientists of the day, first in Edinburgh and shortly after in London. Mary made many lifelong friends who would consider her to be a colleague in their scientific endeavours. John Herscell was probably the closest of them all and would read her manuscripts offering advice as she in turn kept him and others up to date with progress in the wide spectrum of scientific advances. Mary acquired her first library, a telescope and together with William studied mineralogy and put together a mineral collection. For the next twenty years Mary studied science, impressing the best scientist with papers published by the Edinburgh Review whilst at the same time giving birth, only three of the daughters living into adulthood, yet still one died all too young.

Lord Brougham recognised that Mary was the only person in the country capable of understanding, interpreting and translating the work written by the leading French scientist Laplace, Mécanique Céleste. In 1827 he wrote to William, as protocol at that time required, asking him to convey his wish to Mary that he would like her to undertake this. She immediately recognised the enormity of the task being asked of her but was eventually persuaded. In 1831 The Mechanisms of Heavens was published. This was more than a translation in being a commentary and explanation, which brought the science of astronomy up-to-date. The book was used as a text book at Cambridge University where she and Somerville were invited to stay for a week, being the first woman to sleep, dine and socialise there. Professors had to see her by appointment she was in such great demand. Awarded a Royal Pension of £200 p.a. by Sir Robert Peel this was later increased to £300. She was also made an Honorary Member of the Royal Astronomical Society and awarded a gold medal by them. She considered astronomy to be a sublime meditation with the structure based on the unity of God.

The heavens afford the most sublime subject of study which can be derived from science:

…conspicuous is the goodness of the great First Cause in having endowed man with faculties by which he can not only appreciate the magnificence of his works, but trace, with precision, the operation of his laws, use the globe he inhabits as base wherewith to measure the magnitude and distance of the sun and planets, and make the diameter of the earth's orbit the first step of a scale by which he may ascend to the starry firmament. (SI p.111)

This is confirmed in what was intended as an introduction to The Mechanisms of Heavens, but published separately in 1832 as, Preliminary Dissertation. This lays down the structural foundation of her holistic vision. Kathryn Neeley defines Mary's science as 'tracing the mazes' and 'cosmic platform', illustrating the structure of the unity of God and the interdependence and interconnection of his world from the very small to the very big, as she follows the movements of God in the forces of the universe, 'tracing the mazes' from the earth to the 'cosmic platform' of the heavens. In her third published work of 1834 On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, this is made explicit:

Astronomy affords the most extensive example of the connection of the physical sciences. In it are combined the sciences of number and quantity, of rest and motion. In it we perceive the operation of a force which is mixed up with everything that exists in the heavens or on the earth, which pervades every atom, rules the motions of animate and inanimate beings, and is sensible in the descent of a rain-drop as in the the falls of Niagara: in the weight of the air, as in the periods of the moon. (SI p.116)

Through all this intensive work she continued to meet and socialise with her husband William as well as spending time with her daughters, never overstepping the image of nineteenth century domesticated woman. However, she had overworked and together the family took a lengthy visit to Europe. Here they met all the leading scientists including Laplace. Mary continued to reserve her mornings until 1 or 3 p.m. for study and writing as became her habit until she died aged 92. Connexion was updated with eight new additions right up to 1858 even whilst preparing for the first edition of Physical Geography in 1848. That too was updated in five further editions up until 1870.

Mary recovered easily from the initial years of overworking but William became unwell and from the mid-1830s they had a peripatetic existence happily moving from one place to the other in Italy with visits to England and on the continent. This didn't mean they became out of touch with the British scientific community but rather expanded their scope and contacts within Europe, exchanging correspondence and books. Mary continued to be elected as a member to various national societies and receive medals for her work. Having a keen eye of observation she continued to paint, appreciate her family and kept up with her work.

Her daughter Margaret already having died she was to lose her dear and supportive husband William suddenly in 1860 and her son in 1865. Following the loss of William she felt that she must have a new project and at aged 80 embarked on her last work of science, On Molecular and Microscopic Science 1869. For this she adopted Augustine's motto, "God is great in great things, greatest in the least" introducing it with the following words:

The deeper the research, the more does the inexpressible perfection of God's works appear, whether in the majesty of the heavens, or in the infinitesimal beings of the earth. (SI p.130)

Mary Somerville the Woman

The unity of God and creation are clear in the theological underpinning of Mary's scientific thinking and writing and it would seem right to look for the same values of wholeness and connection in her day to day life.

The liberalism of William's father, a minister in the Kirk of Scotland, planted the seeds of her lifelong religious liberalism. Although she did attend the Anglican Church when in England, she did remark that she didn't listen to the liturgy but would occasionally participate in the prayers if they fitted in with her faith. The words tolerance, reason and liberalism are scattered throughout her writing. Perhaps living much of her adult life in Italy the question of church attendance didn't worry her too much. She continues to stress her need to remain aloof from religious controversies, feeling able to value individuals from across the religious spectrum whilst retaining and expressing her rational, tolerant and liberal understanding.

Whilst knowing the Pope she wished for a united Italy of liberalism and progress finding it incompatible with a papal theocracy. As a woman who had a great interest in the developing science of geology, that challenged the stories of creation in Genesis, she was denounced from the pulpit at York Minster. William Somerville must be seen to be speaking for them both when a lady visitor said: "How dreadful it is to think that all the people who worshipped in that temple [Temple of Neptune] are in eternal misery" to which Somerville asked: "How could they believe in Christ when He was not born till many centuries after?"

Meeting Unitarian Frances Power Cobbe in 1845 they were to become good friends, sharing what could be considered radical principles at that time, writing in support of animal rights and supporting the right for women to higher education and female suffrage. It was Cobbe who edited Personal Recollections along with Mary's daughter Martha. It is interesting how Martha wished to perpetuate her mother's iconic position as a great scientist who fully accepting her role as domesticated wife and mother, thus validated both science and the domesticated image of nineteenth century woman. However, Kathryn Neeley draws on the first two original manuscripts discovering there a fuller view of Mary Somerville. We learn that even as a young girl she couldn't understand why God gave her the mind to learn and was yet discouraged from fully developing it. It is worth quoting at length what she had to write on this question, in the unpublished manuscripts:

…age has not abated my zeal for emancipation of my sex from the unreasonable prejudice too prevalent in Great Britain against a literary and scientific education for women. The French are more civilized in this respect, for they have taken the lead, and have given the first example in modern times of encouragement to the high intellectual culture of the sex. (SI p.185)

Going on to mention a list of examples joining:

… in a petition to the Senate of London University, praying that degrees might be granted to women; but it was rejected. I have also frequently signed petitions to Parliament for the Female Suffrage, and have the honour now to be a member of the General Committee for Woman Suffrage in London. (SI p.185)

She had personally taught her own three daughters, mathematics, Latin, Greek and modern languages. She had taken Byron's daughter Ada under her wing when the young Ada had shown interest in mathematics. Ada was to become Lady Lovelace, later a protégé of Charles Babbage, corresponding with Mary on the latest understanding of mathematics throughout Europe, but sadly she died too young to fulfil her potential. Mary Somerville was all too aware of the lack of adult education for women and hailed the establishment of Girton College as a great step forward towards women being able to gain higher education to degree level and beyond.

Mary felt that it was a human imperative to show mercy to slaves, animals and all living beings in God's created world. This aligns her with Unitarian friends such as Patty Smith, daughter of William Smith, the Unitarian MP, who worked so hard on abolishing slavery and the slave trade, and Frances Cobbe the great anti-vivisectionist pioneer. Mary's love of birds never left her and in her last years she could be seen writing, with a pet bird from the wild, perched on her shoulder.

If every atom in the human frame, as well as in that of animals, undergoes a periodical change by continual waste and renovation; the abode is changed, not its inhabitant. If animals have no future, the existence of many is most wretched; multitudes are starved cruelly beaten, and loaded during life; many die under a barbarous vivisection. I cannot believe that any creature was created for uncompensated misery; it would be contrary to the attributes of God's mercy and justice. (PR p.185)


Mary Somerville continued to study, working on algebra and differential calculus four or five hours each day up until the last days of her long life, dying peacefully aged 92. Already the world of science was changing and fragmenting into specific disciplines leaving us judging the pre-eminence of someone's achievements by what discovery can be attributed to them. Mary was both responsible for this fragmentation if we read the titles of her different books, and yet also grounded in a world where scientific achievement was much more of a connected science and shared community activity. Mary's understanding, interpreting, synthesising and disseminating of a vast amount of material was pivotal in ensuring and legitimating science as a cultural foundation of society for the generations which followed. However, the religious understanding and presentation of Mary Somerville's work has sadly been lost or forgotten. The fragmentation continues to be played out with religion and science to be seen all too often as separate and incompatible.

Following this lengthy consideration of a woman, held in such high prestige by her scientific colleagues and now virtually forgotten beyond an Oxford college being named after her, we find a Unitarian woman worthy of celebration. Ruth Watts's claim of Mary Somerville as Unitarian in Gender, Power and the Unitarians in England 1760-1860, can be considered valid. Her religious faith was Unitarian throughout, embedded in her scientific writing, and in a life based on liberal values upholding reason, freedom and tolerance just as Unitarians do to this day.


Kathryn A. Neeley, Science, Illumination, and the Female Mind, (Cambridge University Press 2001)

Somerville, M, Personal Recollections of Mary Somerville 1874, (Echo Library 2009)

Watts, R, Gender, Power and the Unitarians in England 1760-1860 (Longman1998)

Joan Wilkinson March 2010