April 10, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

March is Women’s History month, so at I, Science we are highlighting some of the incredible women who have contributed to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and maths - who have often been overlooked in our textbooks.
Mary Somerville.
Image Source: Painting by Thomas Phillips, retrieved from National Galleries Scotland

Mary Somerville is actually the first person to ever be called a “scientist”, by historian William Whewell, because of her expertise across many different scientific disciplines.

Somerville grew up with minimal formal education – only being taught to read by her mother. Despite this, she began to teach herself maths, astronomy and geology by reading from her family’s library. At age 15, she taught herself to solve algebra equations used as decoration in a fashion magazine.

After the death of her first husband, she married William Somerville, who encouraged her in her scientific pursuits, mixing with other eminent scientists of the time.

In 1826, she published her first paper. However, she is most known for her books. The first book was Mechanism of the Heavens, in which she was able to interpret and explain Laplace’s complex maths of the solar system to a more general audience. Similarly, her major work The Connection of the Physical Sciences connected mathematics, astronomy and geography, and was able to inspire many other scientists of the time. Because of this, she gained honorary membership to multiple societies and academies across the world.