Today, we talk about secret female science in
19th-century England. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
In 1816 Mary Fairfax Somerville and her
husband moved from Scotland to London. She was a
brilliant woman -- a student of science and
mathematics. Now her first order of business in
London was to meet the noted technical writer
Marcet was 47 and well established. She'd written
on chemistry, economics, biology, and much more.
The two became close friends. Marcet was well
connected. She opened doors into London's
intellectual life. She also opened European
connections. Somerville struck up lasting
friendships with the likes of Biot, Gay-Lussac, and
Arago as each passed through London.
Even more interesting was the feminine underground
around her. I do not call it feminIST. It was not.
For example, Marcet didn't even sign her female
name to her books. She never made any claim of
intellectual equality with the thousands of men
trained by her books -- ostensibly written for
Somerville studied with women in this underground,
and she taught them. She was Ada
Byron's first tutor in mathematics. We know Ada
Byron for writing popular explanations of Babbage's
computers. Somerville formed ongoing circles of
But she was tackling the most masculine of the male
preserves -- mathematics. She was 51 when she
stepped beyond the science of the salon. Among her
European friends was the great French scientist La
Place. In 1831, Somerville wrote an
English-language discourse on his celestial
That was the first in a series of major scientific
treatises that involved a share of original theory.
No more anonymity of authorship or pretense to be
writing for young ladies.
She was 68 when she wrote her treatise on geology.
For that, the devout Somerville was condemned by
the fundamentalist dean of York Cathedral, right
along with the leading male scientists of the day
-- a peculiar but significant mark of equality.
By then the Royal Society had placed her bust in
their Great Hall. Among her honors was honorary
membership in the Geneva Society of Physics and
Natural History. That one was arranged by Jane
Marcet, who wrote to her,
You receive great honours, my dear friend, but
that which you bestow on our sex is still greater,
for with talents and acquirements of masculine
magnitude you unite the most sensitive and retiring
modesty of the female sex.
That is just praise. For, as you read Somerville's
memoirs, you are powerfully struck by the vast
presence of scientific women all around her. These
are women who, with few exceptions, have been
written out of our history books -- but who are,
nevertheless, woven through the fabric of all we
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Somerville, M., Personal Recollections, from
Early Life to Old Age. Boston: Roberts
Brothers, 1895. (The M. stands for Martha, Mary's
daughter. These Memoirs were first issued in 1873 and
1874 after Mary's death in 1872 at the age of 92.
Mary Somerville was engaged in scientific writing to
the very end of her long life.)
Patterson, E.C., Mary Somerville and the
Cultivation of Science, 1815-1840. Boston:
Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1983.
For more on Somerville, see Episode 224. For more on Marcet,
see Episodes 741, 744, and 745.
Mary Fairfax Somerville (The frontispiece of her
On Molecular and Microscopic Science)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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