Updated: Sep 23
Mary Somerville, The rose of Jedburgh
Today’s highlight brought to you by DesignMakePlay recognizes Scottish science writer and polymath Mary Sommerville (1780-1872).
Born in 1780, Sommerville is the person we can all thank for coining the term “scientist”. Her aptitude for math and reading led her down a path that would ordain her as one of history’s most unlikely scientific heroes. A self-taught genius, she grew up in a time where women who sought education were met with a lot of negativity. Educators did not know whether it was necessary or even safe to educate women. Somerville taught herself through her family’s library, encouraged only by her uncle who helped her learn Latin.
It wasn’t until after her first husband passed away that she began to do novel mathematics. Her first husband was never supportive of her work, and Sommerville can be quoted saying “although my husband did not prevent me from studying, I met no sympathy whatsoever from him, as he had a very low opinion of the capacity of my sex”. With her second husband, William Somerville, she entered the intellectual life of the times in Edinburgh and London, where she met a variety of great scientific thinkers.
Sommerville was fascinated by the possible linkage between magnetism and the violet part of the solar spectrum, two phenomena that seized the scientific imagination of the day. Using a prism to separate the violet component of sunlight and focus it onto a steel needle, she discovered that the needle became magnetized when exposed. Her paper “The Magnetic Properties of the Violet Rays of the Solar Spectrum” which documented her experiments was the first paper written by a woman presented at the Royal Society, and was later published in its Philosophical Transactions. Because women were not allowed to attend meetings of the Society, the paper was presented by her husband on her behalf.
Somerville faced many obstacles on her path to scientific immortality. Studying women like her helps us understand how imperative it is that the barriers facing women in science be broken down as quickly and entirely as possible. British scientist and inventor Sir David Brewster wrote in 1829 that Mary Somerville was “certainly the most extraordinary woman in Europe, a mathematician of the very first rank with all the gentleness of a woman”. She also tutored and provided mentorship to Ada Lovelace, another female pioneer we’ve highlighted on DesignMakePlay. If women like Lovelace or Sommerville had quit like people often do, the history of science would look very different.
Key takeaways from this piece is that it is important to surround yourself with family and friends that support your endeavors in both times of joy and distress. As mentioned earlier, it wasn’t until Sommerville remarried that her academic and intellectual undertakings began to take off. William Sommerville was very supportive of his wife’s intellectual endeavors, despite the negative things people would say. Moreover, she herself “paid it forward” by inspiring young thought leaders like Lovelace.
Bottom line: ignore the naysayers and always strive to break boundaries as you move forward in life. You will never be criticized by someone who is doing more than you. You will only be criticized by someone doing less.
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