The Douglas Archives

A collection of historical and genalogical records

I was struck by this lady's achievements while investigating a Corbett-Somerville marriage. It turns out that my Corbett ancestor was not the one who married a Somerville.

 Mary Fairfax Somerville was a notable mathematician, at a time when females were not encouraged to participate in science.   She was born 26 Dec 1780 in Jedburgh, Roxburghshire, Scotland.  Her parents were Margaret Charters and Lieutenant William George Fairfax, a vice admiral in the Royal Navy.  "Despite the family's fortunate economic standing, Mary's education was, as was characteristic of much of the education of young girls of her time, quite "scant and haphazard" (Osen 97). She found her only year of full-time schooling, during which she attended a boarding school for girls in Musselburgh, rather miserable and unhappy (Osen 97). Mary studied her first simple arithmetic at the age of thirteen, when her mother took a small flat for the winter months in Edinburgh and she was enrolled briefly in a writing school there. Also at about this time, she, quite by accident, began her study of algebra, as she happened upon some mysterious symbols in the puzzles of a women's fashion magazine and was able to persuade her brother's tutor to purchase some elementary literature on the subject for her."  Her second marriage was in 1812 to her cousin, Dr William Somerville, who was a surgeon in the Royal Navy.  


"Mary Fairfax Somerville's scientific investigations began in the summer of 1825, when she carried out experiments on magnetism. In 1826 she presented her paper entitled "The Magnetic Properties of the Violet Rays of the Solar Spectrum" to the Royal Society.  The paper attracted favorable notice and was only the second by a woman to be read to be read to the Royal Society and published in its Philosophical Transactions. Although the theory presented in her paper would eventually be refuted by the investigations of others, it distinguished her as a skilled scientific writer respected among her colleagues."     She was encouraged by the "Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge" to write "a popularized rendition of Laplace's Mécanique Céleste and Newton's Principia,  that would explain "the concepts clearly through simple illustrations and experiments that most people could understand.  The Mechanism of the Heavens was a great success, probably the most famous of her mathematical writings. In recognition, a portrait bust of her was commissioned by her admirers in the Royal Society and placed in their great hall, now in the headquarters of the society in London."  The fully annotated second edition of the "Mechanism of the Heavens" (1831) by Mary Fairfax Somerville is available online at, developed by Professor Russell McNeil, Malaspina University College.   


Another of her books, "Physical Geography", was her most successful, "and was widely used in schools and universities for the next fifty years."  Her last scientific book, "Molecular and Microscopic Science", was published in 1869 when she was 89 years old.  She continued actively practising algebra daily, until her death at 92 years of age.



Somerville College, one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford, is named after Mary Fairfax Somerville.


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Making conections

The more information you can give about the people you mention, the more chance there is of someone else connecting with your family.

Dates and places of births, deaths and marriages all help to place families.

Professions also help.

'My great-grandmother mother was a Douglas from Montrose' does not give many clues to follow up! But a bit of flesh on the bones makes further research possible. But if we are told who she married, what his profession was and where the children were baptised, then we can get to work.

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