Mary Somerville (1780 – 1872)
Intrigued by the x’s and y’s in the answer to a math question in a ladies’ fashion magazine, 14-year-old Mary Fairfax of Scotland delved into the study of algebra and mathematics, defying her father’s injunction against such pursuits. Her studies were sidetracked by a marriage, in 1804, to a Russian Navy captain, but after his death she returned to Edinburgh and became involved in intellectual circles, associating with people such as the writer Sir Walter Scott and the scientist John Playfair, and resumed her studies in math and science. Her next husband, William Somerville, whom she wed in 1812, supported these efforts, and after they moved to London, Mary became host to her own intellectual circle, which included the astronomer John Herschel and the inventor Charles Babbage. She began experimenting on magnetism and produced a series of writings on astronomy, chemistry, physics and mathematics. She translated astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace’s The Mechanism of the Heavens into English, and although she was unsatisfied with the result, it was used as a textbook for much of the next century. Somerville was one of the first two women, along with Caroline Herschel, to be named honorary members of the Royal Astronomical Society.