Mister Mary Somerville: Husband and Secretary

Stenhouse, Brigitte (2021). Mister Mary Somerville: Husband and Secretary. The Mathematical Intelligencer, 43(1) pp. 7–18.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00283-020-09998-6


Mary Somerville’s life as a mathematician and savant in nineteenth-century Great Britain was heavily influenced by her gender; as a woman, her access to the ideas and resources developed and circulated in universities and scientific societies was highly restricted. However, her engagement with learned institutions was by no means nonexistent, and although she was 90 before being elected a full member of any society (Società Geografica Italiana, 1870), Somerville (Figure 1) nevertheless benefited from the resources and social networks cultivated by such institutions from as early as 1812. A key intermediary between Somerville and these societies was her husband, Dr. William Somerville, whose mediation was vital to her access to knowledge and her subsequent career as a scientific author. In this paper we will consider how spousal cooperation enabled the overcoming of gendered barriers to scientific institutions in the nineteenth century.

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