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Mary Somerville- The Woman From The Scottish Border Who Helped Discover Neptune

From protecting children in WW2, to the suffragette movement, and becoming a pioneer in patriarchal fields we're taking a deep dive into four stories of the most phenomenal and inspiring women from our county and beyond to celebrate Women’s History Month in Cumbria.

Mary Somerville, the woman from the Scottish border who helped discovered Neptune

Just over 50 miles North of Carlisle lying between the Scotland and England border is the town of Jedburgh where Scottish scientist, astronomer, writer, and mathematician Mary Somerville was born in 1780.

Plaque to Mary Somerville in Jedburgh that is placed alongside John Brewster plaque, a lifelong friend of Mary’s. photo credit: Jedburgh historic walks

In Mary’s childhood, she was taught to read but not to write by her mother and at the age of ten she attended a boarding school for one year which inspired her to educate herself through the family library and Mary’s uncle Thomas encouraged her academically, even teaching her Latin.

Even in childhood, Mary was deeply political and she gave up sugar in protest to the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Many 18th century children and young people across America and the UK refused to eat sugar that was a product of slavery. Here we see two young Georgian American children with a petition to abolish the slave trade.

Mary’s husband Samuel Grieg disapproved of her academic career as a mathematician:

“Although my husband did not prevent me from studying, I met with no sympathy whatever from him, as he had a very low opinion of the capacity of my sex.” – Mary Somerville

When Samuel died in 1807, Mary was free from the sexist constraints of her ex-husband and continued to dedicate herself to Maths. Mary remarried in 1812 to her cousin William Somerville who was proud of his wife’s academic achievements.

Portrait of Mary Somerville

Somerville began writing a book on physics for working-class people titled Mechanism of the Heavens (1831) for lawyer Henry Brougham. Brougham felt the book was too long, so Mary’s friend John Herschel decided to publish the book a year later which looks at the current state of astronomical knowledge for general readers as a dissertation.

Mechanism of the Heavens by Mary Somerville

Mary’s book became so highly acclaimed amongst British mathematicians and astronomers that the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) commissioned a marble bust of her. Both Mary and Herschel’s sister Caroline became the first women honorary member of RAS.

Sculpture of Mary Somerville by famous British sculptor Francis Leggatt Chantrey

In the next decade of her life, she published over nine books that surrounded astronomy, physics, geography, and botany. On her academic success, inventor of the kaleidoscope David Brewster described Mary as: “certainly the most extraordinary woman in Europe”.

Somerville had such an impact within her fields that in 1834, philosopher William Whewell coined the term scientist as a gender-neutral term for Mary, making her the UK’s and the world’s first scientist.

William Whewell coining scientist.

During this time in Mary’s life, she wrote about the difficulties in calculating where Uranus was and made a mathematical prediction that there was a planet orbiting the 7th planet from the Sun. Thanks to Mary’s calculations Neptune was discovered in 1846 by British astronomer John Couch Adams who used her calculations to find the planet.

in 2020 google doodle celebrate this achievement of Mary’s in the drawing and said of Mary that she opened the door for generations of female scientists. Photo credit: Google Doodle

In Mary’s later life she was the first to sign John Stewart Mill’s 1866 first mass Women’s suffrage petition and in her autobiography described how ‘British laws are averse to women’.

Over 1,500 people signed the petition and it led to the first debate on votes for Women, unfortunately, the bill wasn’t passed by parliament possibly because no women were allowed to stand as MP’s until over 50 years later.

Suffragettes Emily Davis and Elizabeth Garrett presenting the petition to John Stuart Mill in Westminster Hall on 7 June 1866 credit: LSE

Mary Somerville was a pioneer of her time in an era when science was very much a patriarchal institution, she became the leading woman scientist of her day and is widely cited as an integral part of the British scientific community.

Mary Somerville paved the way for many women scientists and in her legacy, the Institute of Physics has a Mary Somerville award. You can even find Mary Somerville on the Scottish £10 note.

“From my earliest years my mind revolved against oppression and tyranny, and I resented the injustice of the world in denying all those privileges of education to my sex which were so lavishly bestowed on men.” - Mary Somerville

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