Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Somerville, Mary

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SOMERVILLE, MARY (1780–1872), writer on science, daughter of Vice-Admiral Sir William George Fairfax [q. v.] and his second wife, Margaret, daughter of Samuel Charters, was born in 1780 during her father's absence at sea at the Manse of Jedburgh, the house of her aunt and future mother-in-law, Martha Somerville. Keenly observant of nature from childhood, she learned much from her early rambles over the sands and braes of Burntisland. Subsequently this open-air education was supplemented by attendance at a fashionable boarding-school at Musselburgh. The bent of her genius was shown in her application to Euclid, and she perfected herself in Latin in order to read Newton's ‘Principia.’ Her marriage in 1804 to Captain Samuel Greig, son of the Russian admiral, Sir Samuel Greig [q. v.], did not interrupt her studies, and her widowhood at the end of three years left her free to prosecute them with increased devotion. Her second marriage, in 1812, to her cousin, Dr. William Somerville [q. v.], gave her a companion who entirely sympathised with her intellectual aims. Edinburgh, her residence during the ensuing four years, was exchanged for London in 1816, and she moved thenceforward in the brilliant intellectual circle which included Brougham and Melbourne, Rogers, Moore, Macaulay, Sir James Mackintosh, and the Napiers. Among her scientific friends were Sir William and Sir John Herschel, Sir Charles Lyell, Sir George Airy, and Dr. Whewell, while Humboldt, Arago, Laplace, Gay-Lussac, and De Candolle were among her foreign acquaintances and correspondents.

A paper on ‘The Magnetic Properties of the Violet Rays of the Solar Spectrum,’ presented by her to the Royal Society in 1826, showed ingenuity in original speculation, and attracted much interest at the time, although the theory it propounded was subsequently negatived by the researches of Moser and Ries. In the following year Lord Brougham, on behalf of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, asked her to write a volume descriptive of Laplace's great work, ‘Le Mécanique Céleste,’ and its publication in 1831 raised her at once to the first rank among scientific writers. Distinctions were showered on her; the Royal Society ordered her bust, by Chantrey, to be placed in their great hall, and a civil list pension of 200l., afterwards raised to 300l., a year was soon conferred on her by Sir Robert Peel. Her next work, ‘The Connection of the Physical Sciences,’ an able summary of research into physical phenomena, was published in 1834, and went through several editions. A sentence contained in that of 1842, pointing out that the perturbations of Uranus might disclose the existence of an unseen planet, suggested, as Professor Adams afterwards declared, the calculations from which he deduced the orbit of Neptune.

After 1838, when the illness of Dr. Somerville compelled his family to winter abroad, Mrs. Somerville's life was mainly passed in Italy. The interruptions of travel delayed the preparation of her work on ‘Physical Geography,’ until the appearance of Humboldt's ‘Cosmos’ caused her to meditate its destruction. Reprieved at the intercession of her husband, and submitted to the judgment of Sir John Herschel, the work justified Herschel's decision in favour of its publication (in 1848) by the subsequent sale of six editions. The death of Dr. Somerville in 1860, and that of Woronzow Greig, Mrs. Somerville's only son, which occurred suddenly in 1865, shattered her domestic happiness. She found solace in the preparation of a fresh work, ‘Molecular and Microscopic Science,’ a summary of the most recent discoveries in chemistry and physics. This was published in 1869, when she had attained her eighty-ninth year. She died at Naples, on 29 Nov. 1872, at the age of ninety-two, in full possession of her mental faculties. She was buried in the English cemetery at Naples.

Her grasp of scientific truth in all branches of knowledge, combined with an exceptional power of exposition, made her the most remarkable woman of her generation. Nor did her abstruse studies exclude the cultivation of lighter gifts, and she excelled in music, in painting, and in the use of the needle. Her endowments were enhanced by rare charm and geniality of manner, while the fair hair, delicate complexion, and small proportions which had obtained for her in her girlhood the sobriquet of ‘the rose of Jedburgh,’ formed a piquant contrast to her masculine breadth of intellect. Her contributions to science were recognised by various learned bodies. The Royal Astronomical Society elected her an honorary member, and the Victoria gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society was conferred on her in 1869. A similar distinction was awarded her by the Italian Royal Geographical Society, and her name was commemorated after her death in the foundation of Somerville Hall and in the Mary Somerville scholarship for women in mathematics at Oxford.

As her son left no children, and her surviving daughters, Martha and Mary Somerville, died unmarried, her correspondence and other memorials of her have passed into the hands of her nephew, Sir William Ramsay-Fairfax, bart. He also possesses her bust, by Macdonald, a copy of which he presented to the National Portrait Gallery, Scotland; and her portrait, by Swinton, painted in Rome in 1844. A portrait of her in crayons, by Swinton, was bequeathed by her daughter to the National Portrait Gallery, London, and her bust adorns the rooms of the Royal Institution, as well as those of the Royal Society.

[Personal Recollections of Mary Somerville, by her daughter, Martha Somerville, London, 1873; Quarterly Review, January 1874, p. 74; Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, February 1873, pp. 190–7; information communicated by Sir W. G. H. T. Ramsay-Fairfax, bart.]

E. M. C.