Mary Somerville: Being and Becoming a Mathematician

Stenhouse, Brigitte (2021). Mary Somerville: Being and Becoming a Mathematician. PhD thesis The Open University.



Mary Somerville (1780–1872) was unequivocally one of the best-known mathematicians in Britain during the first half of the nineteenth-century. Barred from receiving a formal education, she tenaciously pursued her studies through independent reading and the solving of problems published in the Question and Answer sections of journals. Through her deft navigation of polite society in Edinburgh, London, and Paris, she was able to build a reputation for herself as an expert in analytical mathematics, especially as practiced and taught in France. At a time when British mathematics was widely perceived to be in decline, Somerville positioned herself within a network of mathematicians who saw the adoption of analytical methods as the way to reform. Moreover, she was able to leverage her knowledge of this esoteric and highly valued mathematics to build a successful career as an author of scientific books which lasted over forty years. However, the type of books that Somerville wrote and published, especially as regarding mathematical content, was heavily influenced by her desire and need to make a profit from her writing. This thesis presents the first scholarly treatment of Somerville's path as a mathematician, broadly conceived to include her engagement with scientific society alongside her written works, and provides new insight into the circulation of French analysis in early-nineteenth-century Britain.

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