Mary Somerville

Portrait of Mary Somerville

Mary Somerville was born in 1780 the daughter of a vice admiral in the navy. She was raised in Burntisland and got a minimal education as was common for women in a deeply patriarchal society. She showed a natural ability in mathematics especially algebra after discovering it by accident and persuading her brother's tutor to purchase some books on the subject for her. In 1804 she married a distant cousin but he died three years later and left her a fortune. Independently wealthy she was able to explore her intellectual interests.

In 1812 she married again and her second husband, who was a surgeon, encouraged her in her studies. She was introduced to the scholarly community in London and France and began to write papers on a number of subjects including astronomy and light. She became one of the first female members of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1835 and they later commissioned a bust to honour her.

She faced a great deal of prejudice, even from her own family, and in later life while she was living in Italy she wrote Personal Recollections, an autobiography about her experiences as part of the 19th century scientific community. She died in Naples in 1872 and is buried there.