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Annotated Bibliography for Mary Somerville

From Women in European History

Back to Main Article: Mary Somerville

Academic Sources Cited in the Biography


Science, Women, and Education

Watts, Ruth. "Science and Women in the History of Education: Expanding the Archive." History of Education, 32,2:189-199. 2003.

In this piece Watts reviews the arguments of several historians of science and feminists on the connection between scientific thinking and gender. She contends that this relationship deserves to be examined fully through the utilization of sources like biographies and self portraits by early women scientists because of its significance to intellectual and educational history. Watts relates the argument that the history of science has been restricted to a history of great men in science and the argument that there is a connection between masculinity and science rooted in the acetic, almost religious aspects of scientific study which rendered it closed to women throughout much of history. She then uses Mary Somerville's memoirs as a case study of what we can learn about gender, science, and education from women's biographies. Her assessment is not entirely optimistic: she points out that many of Somerville's deepest beliefs about gender outside of education are omitted from the writings and reminds us that the writing which remained was edited by Martha Somerville and others who wished to portray Mary as modest and unpretentious to thwart a backlash against women's claims to higher education around the time of the memoirs' publication.

Somerville's Writing

Patterson, Elizabeth C. "Mary Somerville." The British Journal for the History of Science. 4,4:311-339. 2010.

In this piece Patterson recounts the life of Mary Somerville, drawn for the most part from Somerville's memoirs, and discusses her books. Patterson's analysis of Somerville's writing is the main attraction of the article. She notes Somerville's clarity and gift for organizing large volumes of specialized information. She discerns that each of Somerville's published texts had two purposes: to present an account of science as it was at the time of publication and to show the connections between the subjects of scientific inquiry in her time and what had been studied before or was being studied presently in other disciplines. Somerville's "simple, direct, and uncolored" (329) style of writing is praised, as are her ability to present all possible explanations for a natural occurrence, her clear discussion of contemporary hypotheses, and her ability to rely heavily on experimental evidence without letting her prose devolve into a lab manual.

Reception in the Scientific Community

Patterson, Elizabeth C. "The Case of Mary Somerville: An Aspect of Nineteenth-Century Science." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 118, 3:269-275. 1974.

Patterson here rebukes the accounts of Somerville which sensationalize her life and portray it as a grand struggle against gender prejudice in science. Patterson cites the many instances in which men in academia encouraged and helped Mary Somerville during her self-education and career, from professors at Edinburgh University to the founders of the Edinburgh review, from her uncle to her second husband. Patterson also remarks on the willingness of prominent men in science, such as Michael Faraday, to edit portions of Mary Somerville's books on the physical sciences. Furthermore, Patterson argues that this pattern of support and encouragement from men in the scientific community stands in sharp contrast with the censure that women of science encountered from members of their own sex. Patterson does acknowledge that Somerville faced obstacles, but these arose primarily because, unlike many other women scientists of her time, she did not have a parent involved in scientific study and her family held the common view that a woman's constitution was unequal to such study. But this view was a result of ignorance, and from many sides, Patterson maintains, Somerville received warm praise for her talent and work that goes unnoticed in light of the sentimentality of historians who wish to make her a symbol or monument.

Her Position in History

Delamont, Sara. "Lives of Great Women Scientists: The Never Ending Story?" Social Studies of Science. Vol. 35, No. 3 (Jun., 2005), pp. 491-496

Delamont discusses the ability of women with wealth and status to gain access to intellectual circles during Somerville's lifetime (which began during the Enlightenment). She also discusses how science became professionalized during Somerville's lifetime so that by the end of it a woman studying from home as she did would hardly pass as a scientist. This demonstrates the uniqueness of Somerville's position in history.

Science and the Female Mind

Neeley, Kathryn A. Mary Somerville: Science, Illumination, and the Female Mind.(Prologue) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2001.

Neeley's prologue discusses Somerville as a poet and a mathematician. Neeley writes that natural processes are often on too large or small a scale to be comprehended by human intellect, yet through empirical observation and deduction-- through science-- we are able to transcend the limits of our senses. She compares this role of science to that of the imagination, and cites writing by William Whewell, a contemporary of Somerville, who contended that women possessed a special gift for synthesizing larger pictures of nature from narrow observations of the world. Neeley shows how this "gift" attributed to Somerville by Whewell allowed her to write works of great complexity without sacrificing clarity, to bring scientific knowledge to a broader audience than it had ever had before, and to move people to respond to the natural world and be moved by its beauty not only as rendered in poetry but as revealed by scientific study.

Back to Main Article: Mary Somerville

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