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Unconventional Heroines: Mary Somerville

Sometimes while doing research I come across a historical figure I absolutely wish I could sit down with. Mary Somerville is very high on my list – not least because though she was a brilliant scientists, she also had lots of author friends, encouraged other female scientists (like Ada Lovelace) and was lucky enough to marry a man who thought she was smarter than she and was proud of it!

Her story is illustrative and touching – she was born in 1780 to a well-established family in Scotland but grew up rather lonely and had only a limited education and used to eavesdrop on her brother’s tutoring sessions and was lucky that her uncle, a doctor, taught her Latin. But she was obviously very stubborn because she persevered – absorbing sciences, languages, and finding connections with people who encouraged her and fostered her mental growth.

She was lucky enough to find a husband who encouraged her enthusiastically (he was her second husband – the first sounds like a stiff-rumped stick in the mud, but 'luckily' he passed away after only three years of marriage when she was 27). It was said of her second husband, Dr. William Somerville, that 'His love and admiration for her were unbounded; he frankly and willingly acknowledged her superiority to himself.' That’s a man for you!

Though she flourished in the male environment of science she had many brilliant women friends (she particularly seemed to like authors, yay!) and encouraged the next generation of brilliant women including Lady Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter, who has been called the ever first computer programmer (she’s another fascinating unconventional heroine…).

At 55 she became one of the first two women to be nominated to the Royal Astronomical Society along with another amazing female mental powerhouse, astronomer Caroline Herschel (who I discuss in a previous blog). Upon her death in 1872 she was named ‘The queen of 19th century science’.

Mary fully deserves having one of the most amazing academic institutions named after her – Somerville College at Oxford University. She even has a pacific island and a lunar crater named after her, and she is to appear on the new 10 pound note in the United Kingdom…

Not bad for a Regency Miss who liked balls and complained there just weren’t enough of them where she lived…

Do you know of any other unconventional heroines? I’d love to hear about your favorite and most original Unconventional Heroine, real or imagined. She doesn’t have to be famous like Mary Somerville – after all, heroines come in all shapes and sizes…

Mary Somerville (1780-1872)

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