Popular Science Monthly/Volume 25/May 1884/Sketch of Mary Somerville

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"WITHOUT forming what is ordinarily called an eventful career," says an English essayist,[1] "the life of Mrs. Somerville is marked by a degree of interest far beyond that which attaches to the lives of many men and women who have shown more striking traits of temperament and character. It is the unobtrusive record of what can be done by the steady culture of good natural powers, and the pursuit of a high standard of excellence, in order to win for a woman a distinguished place in the sphere habitually reserved to men, without parting with any of those characteristics of mind, or character, or demeanor, which have ever been taken to form the grace and glory of womanhood." "Nature" speaks of her as an illustrious woman, "unique, or almost unique, from one point of view, though so beautifully womanly from others." Sir Charles Lyell spoke of her, in one of his letters ("Life," Vol. I, page 373), as "the first of women, not of the blue."

Mrs. Somerville was born in Jedburgh, Roxburghshire, Scotland, December 26, 1780, and died at Sorrento, near Naples, November 29, 1872. Her father was Sir William George Fairfax, who commanded the admiral's ship in the battle of Camperdown, and was afterward made a vice-admiral. There was nothing congenial in the surroundings of her childhood to the scientific pursuits for which she even then seems to have had an inclination, and the influences under which she lived were rather adverse to the gratification of her tastes in that direction. Her earliest pictures of herself represent her as "a lonely child picking up shells along the shore, . . . or gathering wild-flowers and gorse on the heath-clad links, . . . having neither dolls nor playmates." "When the tide was out," she says in her "Personal Recollections," "I spent hours on the sand, looking at the star-fish and sea-urchins, or watching the children digging for sand-eels, cockles, and the spouting razor-fish. I made a collection of shells, such as were cast ashore, some so small that they appeared like white specks in patches of black sand. There was a small pier on the sands for shipping limestone brought from the coal-mines inland. I was astonished to see the surface of these blocks of stone covered with beautiful impressions of what seemed to be leaves; how they got there I could not imagine, but I picked up the broken bits, and even large pieces, and brought them to my repository. I knew the eggs of many birds, and made a collection of them."

When ten years old, she was sent to school at Musselburgh, where she spent a year of misery. The chief thing she had to do at this expensive establishment was to learn by heart a page of Johnson's dictionary, not only to spell the words, give their parts of speech and meaning, but as an exercise of memory to remember their order of succession. Besides this, she had to learn the first principles of writing, and the rudiments of French and English grammar. From this place "she returned home, as she naïvely says, like a wild animal escaped from a cage, to revel once more in the curiosities of the sea-shore, sitting up half the night to watch the stars or the aurora, and having an instinctive horror, which clung to her through life, of being alone in the dark." Four or five years later she received her first introduction to mathematics, by one of the most curious accidents that could be imagined—through a fashion-magazine. At one of the tea-parties given by her mother's neighbors, she became acquainted with a Miss Ogilvie, who asked her to go and see fancy works she was engaged upon. "I went next day," Mrs. Somerville writes, "and after admiring her work, and being told how it was done, she showed me a monthly magazine with colored plates of ladies' dresses, charades, and puzzles. At the end of a page I read what appeared to me to be simply an arithmetical question; but in turning the page I was surprised to see strange-looking lines mixed with letters, chiefly X's and Y's, and asked, 'What is that?' 'Oh,' said Miss Ogilvie, 'it is a kind of arithmetic—they call it algebra; but I can tell you nothing about it.' And we talked about other things; but, on going home, I thought I would look if any of our books could tell me what was meant by algebra. In Robertson's 'Navigation,' I flattered myself that I had got precisely what I wanted; but I soon found that I was mistaken. I perceived, however, that astronomy did not consist in star-gazing, and, as I persevered in studying the book for a time, I certainly got a dim view of several subjects which were useful to me afterward. Unfortunately, not one of our acquaintances or relations knew anything of science or natural history; nor, had they done so, should I have had courage to ask any of them a question, for I should have been laughed at." She was afterward introduced to Nasmyth, the landscape-painter, under whom she practiced in copying pictures. One day she heard him say, in talking with some ladies about perspective: "You should study Euclid's 'Elements of Geometry'; the foundation, not only of perspective, but of astronomy and all mechanical science." "Here, in the most unexpected manner," she says, "I got the information I wanted, for I at once saw that it would help me to understand some parts of Robertson's 'Navigation'; but as to going to a bookseller and asking for Euclid, the thing was impossible." She afterward obtained, through a tutor in the family, a Euclid and a Bonnycastle's "Algebra," and studied—herself being her only teacher—her geometry by stealth, reading late in the night after she had gone to bed. The servants reported to her mother that she was consuming candles extravagantly, and orders were given to take away her candle as soon as she was in bed. She had, however, already gone through the first six books of Euclid, and was now thrown on her memory. She continued her geometrical exercises by beginning with the first book of her author and demonstrating a certain number of problems every night, till she could nearly go through the whole. She also studied Latin, reading six books of Caesar's "Commentaries," and Greek enough to read Xenophon and part of Herodotus. While these things were going on, her father came home for a short time, and, learning what she was about, said to her mother: "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." Her mother, though pleased with the acquisitions in music she made, was as unsympathetic as her father with her scholastic tastes; and, believing that women's duties were domestic, took great pains to divert her mind from her chosen "unladylike" pursuits, and keep her busied with household occupations. She received some sympathy from her uncle, the Rev. Dr. Somerville, afterward her father-in-law, who was one of the first to perceive her rare qualities; and from Professor Wallace, of the University of Edinburgh, who gave her a list of mathematical books, chiefly French. "I was thirty-three years of age," she writes, "when I bought this excellent little library. I could hardly believe that I possessed such a treasure when I looked back on the day that I first saw the mysterious word 'algebra,' and the long course of years in which I had persevered, almost without hope. It taught me never to despair. I had now the means, and pursued my studies with increased assiduity; concealment was no longer possible, nor was it attempted. I was considered eccentric and foolish, and my conduct was highly disapproved of by many, even by some members of my own family."

The future Mrs. Somerville had also gifts of another kind than her scholastic ones. She was admired for her good looks, and called "the Rose of Jedburgh"; and was conspicuous for her beauty, the youthfulness of her manner, and her light and graceful figure, to the end of her life. She was married in 1804 to Mr. Samuel Greig, Russian consular agent in London, who has been credited with encouraging her scientific tastes, but incorrectly. Her daughter, Martha Somerville, says that "Mr. Greig took no interest in science or literature, and possessed in full the prejudice against learned women which was common at that time." But he did not prevent her from studying. After three years of married life she returned, a widow, to her father's house in Burntisland, with two little boys, one of whom died in childhood. With her second husband, Dr. William Somerville, whom she married in 1812, "she found sympathy with her intellectual tastes, and a stimulus to her energy for culture." Nevertheless, his sister had written to her on the first announcement of the engagement, expressing the hope that now she would give up her foolish manner of life and studies, and make a respectable and useful wife. Dr. Somerville having been appointed Inspector of the Army Medical Board and Physician to Chelsea Hospital, they removed to London in 1816. Here Mrs. Somerville introduced herself to the scientific world and attracted attention by some experiments on the magnetic influence of the violet rays of the solar spectrum, the results of which were published in the "Philosophical Transactions" of 1826.

In the year following the reading of this paper, Lord Brougham proposed to Mrs. Somerville to write for the series of publications of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge an epitome or popular exposition of Laplace's philosophy, as laid down in his "Mécanique Céleste."' Acting upon this suggestion, she composed her "Celestial Mechanics," a work in which, though it is founded on Laplace's treatise, the author did not hesitate to express her own independent opinion of the value of the great astronomer's various propositions. The book proved to be too large and elaborate for the library for which it had been primarily intended—or, as Sir John Herschel expressed it, "written for posterity, and not for the class whom the society designed to instruct"—and was published separately, in 1831. It made her famous. The approval which it won, says "Nature" in a leading article, "from the first mathematicians and physicists of the day, seems to have surprised no one more thoroughly than the writer herself, who had carried on her studies with such unostentatious industry within her own home that she was scarcely conscious how exceptional were her attainments." On the recommendation of Professors Whewell and Peacock, the "Mechanism of the Heavens" was introduced upon the list of studies prescribed by the University of Cambridge as "essential to those students who aspire to the highest places in the examinations."

In 1834 she published "The Connection of the Physical Sciences," a work which was highly praised in the "Quarterly Review," was spoken of by Humboldt as "generally so exact and admirable a treatise," has passed through nine editions in English, and was translated into Italian and published in Florence in 1861. In the next year she was awarded by the Government a literary pension of £200, which was afterward increased to £300; and was made an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society, the second woman—Caroline Herschel being the first—on whom this honor was conferred. Her bust, by Chantrey, was placed, by a subscription of the Fellows, in the great hall of the Royal Society.

Mrs. Somerville's best-known work is her "Physical Geography," one of the earliest systematic treatises on that important subject, on which so much attention has since been bestowed, which was published in 1848. It has passed through several editions in England and the United States, has been translated into several foreign languages, and still holds a place as a first authority, even with experts, among the numerous learned works that have since been published on the subject. Of the publication of this book, Mrs. Somerville says: "I was preparing to print my 'Physical Geography' when 'Cosmos' appeared. I at once determined to put my manuscript in the fire, when Somerville said: 'Do not be rash; consult some of our friends—Herschel, for instance.' So I sent the MS. to Sir John Herschel, who advised me by all means to publish it." She afterward sent a copy of a later edition to Baron Humboldt, who wrote her a very kind letter, in return, in which he spoke of the book as "that fine work, that has charmed and instructed me since it appeared for the first time. To the great superiority you possess, and which has so nobly illustrated your name in the high regions of mathematical analysis, you add, madame, a variety of information in all parts of physics and descriptive natural history. After the 'Mechanism of the Heavens,' the philosophical 'Connection of the Physical Sciences' has been the object of my profound admiration.... The author of the rash 'Cosmos' should, more than any other one, salute the 'Physical Geography' of Mary Somerville. ... I do not know of a work on physical geography in any language that can compare with yours."

Her last work, "On Molecular and Microscopic Science," containing a summary of the most recent and abstruse investigations in that department, was published in 1869, when she was close upon her ninetieth year. This book was begun, she tells us in her "Recollections," about eight years before, when she was unoccupied, and felt the necessity of having something to do, desultory reading being insufficient to interest her; "and as I had always considered the section on chemistry the weakest part of the 'Connection of the Physical Sciences,' I resolved to write it anew. My daughters strongly opposed this, saying, 'Why not write a new book?' They were right; it would have been lost time; so I followed their advice, though it was a formidable undertaking at my age, considering that the general character of science had greatly changed." Instead of being discouraged by the magnitude of the field opened to her, "I seemed to have resumed the perseverance and energy of my youth, and began to write with courage, though I did not think I should live to finish even the sketch I had made, and which I intended to publish under the name of 'Molecular and Microscopic Science,' and assumed as my motto, 'Deus magnus in magnis, maximus in minimis' ('God great in great things, greatest in the least'), from Saint Augustine."

This list of Mrs. Somerville's principal publications does not include all, nor even the most difficult of her works, for she produced, also, monographs on the "Analytical Attraction of Spheroids," "The Form and Rotation of the Earth," "The Tides of the Ocean and Atmosphere," "and, besides many others of equally abstruse nature, a treatise of two hundred and forty-six pages 'On Curves and Surfaces of the Higher Orders,' which she herself tells us she wrote con amore, to fill up her morning hours while spending her winter in Southern Italy."

With all these labors, and this concentration of her mind on the most difficult problems of physics and mathematics, Mrs. Somerville shone in the domestic circle, and enjoyed society and its amusements. "In reading the personal recollections of this wonderful woman," says "Nature," "nothing strikes one more than the ordinary and even commonplace conditions under which her great intellect advanced to maturity. In her case, the only exceptional features were her natural gifts, and her perseverance in cultivating them. Although 'the one woman of her time, and perhaps of all times,' so successfully did she conceal her learning under a delicate feminine exterior, a shy manner, and the practical qualities of an efficient mistress of a household, coupled with the graceful, artistic accomplishments of an elegant woman of the world, that ordinary visitors, who had sought her as a prodigy, came away disappointed that she looked and behaved like any other materfamilias, and talked just like other people." Mrs. Marcet wrote to her, announcing her election to a scientific society of Geneva: "You receive great honors, my dear friend, but that which you confer on our sex is still greater, for, with talents and acquirements of masculine magnitude, you unite the most sensitive and retiring modesty of the female sex; indeed, I know not any woman, perhaps I might say any human being, who would support so much applause without feeling the weakness of vanity." Miss Somerville says in the "Recollections": "It would be almost incredible were I to describe how much my mother contrived to do in the course of the day. When my sister and I were small children, although busily engaged in writing for the press, she used to teach us for three hours every morning, besides managing her house carefully, reading the newspapers (for she always was a keen and, I must add, a liberal politician), and the most important new books on all subjects, grave and gay. In addition to all this, she freely visited and received her friends. Gay and cheerful company was a pleasant relaxation after a hard day's work. My mother never introduced scientific or learned subjects into general conversation. When they were brought forward by others, she talked simply and naturally about them, without the slightest pretension to superior knowledge. Finally, to complete the list of her accomplishments, I must add that she was a remarkably neat and skillful needle-woman."

"At Edinburgh," says the English essayist in the "Saturday Review," "she had the opportunity of seeing Mrs. Siddons and John Kemble on the stage, and contracted a passion for Shakespeare. Poetry and works of the imagination had a charm to her from the first; and no girl more enjoyed dancing, or had more numerous partners at balls. At the same time, a degree of diffidence, mainly attributable to the seclusion of her early years, forbade her taking part in conversation, or speaking across the table. Through all her amusements, severe as the winter might be, she rose at daybreak, and, wrapped in a blanket, no fire being allowed, read algebra or the classics till breakfast-time. If tired in mind, as she was often conscious of becoming, in spite of her perseverance, refreshment was sought in poetry, or in stories of ghosts and witchcraft, of which she was constitutionally fond, being what the Scotch call eerie when in the dark or by herself, although having no actual belief in ghosts, and feeling a proper scorn for spirit-rappers." The practice of writing in bed, referred to in the preceding extract, appears to have been habitual with her, and "Chambers's Journal" gives a picture of her making it a rule "not to get up before twelve or one, although she began work at eight; reading, writing, and calculating hard—with her pet sparrow resting upon her arm—four or five hours every day, but these four or five hours were spent abed."

"The restless activity of her intellect," says "Nature," "never slumbered. When she received her first lessons in painting and music, she began at once to try and trace out the scientific principles on which these arts are based, and never rested till she had gained some knowledge of the laws of perspective and of the theory of color, and had learned to tune her own instruments." Another writer depicts the versatility of her life, and the abundance of the scientific friendships she contracted in association with her husband, who, "a traveler, a naturalist, a good classic, and a critical writer of English," was "one to share her studies and to be her support and companion in society and in travel.... Geology and mineralogy are among the first of their joint studies, and the extravagance of their cabinet of specimens is criticised. Acquaintance with the Herschels opens up practical astronomy. In London, Arago and Biot, who had heard of the English lady reading Laplace, express surprise at her youth. At Paris friendship is renewed with these savants, with whom are met Laplace himself, Arago, and Professor Humboldt; Cuvier does the honors of the Jardin des Plantes, and Gay-Lussac and Larrey entertain her with chat.... At Geneva she met Mrs. Marcet, whose 'Conversations on Chemistry' were said by Faraday to have first opened his mind to the wonders of that science. There, too, were Sismondi and De la Rive. A letter from De Candolle, whose acquaintance she had made there, gives shortly afterward some excellent hints for the prosecution of the botanical studies in which she had already made much progress. The interest which she takes in the most diverse branches of knowledge makes every one forward to bring her the first intelligence of anything new or of significance. Dr. Young is eager to submit an Egyptian horoscope he has that evening deciphered from a papyrus of the age of the Ptolemies; Wollaston hurries to Hanover Square to show, by means of a small prism in a darkened room, the seven dark lines he had discovered crossing the solar spectrum, the germ of the most important series of modern discoveries in solar physics; Babbage discourses over his analytical engine; Sir J. Herschel exhibits nebulæ and binary stars in the field of his great reflector; Ada, Byron's daughter, afterward Lady Lovelace, compares difficulties with Mary Somerville in mathematics. Among her most intimate and valued friends was Maria Edgeworth, to which number were later added Joanna Baillie and her sister. Year by year her acquaintance and correspondence grew, until they included well-nigh every name of distinction in literature or science."

This activity continued till the last day of her life. She spent many years in Italy, having removed there for the benefit of the health of her husband, who died at Florence in 1861 at the age of ninety-one, and continuing to reside there till her death. In her eighty-ninth year she revised some of her earlier mathematical manuscripts, which had been forgotten for many years, and was surprised at the facility she still retained for the calculus. One of her latest writings was the acknowledgment of the receipt from Mr. Spottiswoode of a parcel of recent advanced books upon the higher algebra, including quaternions. In her ninety-second year, when she had written of the "Blue Peter having long been flying at her foremast," and of her soon expecting the signal for sailing, she was interesting herself in the phenomena of volcanic eruptions, and speculating on their effects, and was following with unabated interest the progress of scientific discovery and keeping up with the record of events. She died in sleep. The list of scientific societies of which Mrs. Somerville was a member, and of honors she received, is a long one, and includes a number of American societies. She also had among her personal friends many men of chief distinction in American science and letters.

During her later years Mrs. Somerville noted down some recollections of her life, and they, edited and supplemented by her daughter, Martha Somerville, were published in 1873, under the title of "Personal Recollections, from Early Life to Old Age, of Mary Somerville."

  1. "Saturday Review," January 10, 1874.