The Naturalist

She was born a Natural.

Born when it wasn’t natural.

“Mathematics are the natural bent of my mind”
— Mary Somervillemarysomervillebyswinton

It was in her nature to be a scientist — damn the culture.

In fact, she was to become the first named scientist.  William Whewell, in his 1834 review of Somerville’s Connexion, coined the word “scientist” to describe Somerville.

Her mother taught her to read the Bible and Calvinist catechisms, and when not occupied with household chores Mary roamed among the birds and flowers in the garden.  In her autobiography Somerville recollects that after returning from sea her father said to her mother “This kind of life will never do, Mary must at least know how to write and keep accounts”. Thus the 10-year-old was sent for a year of tuition at Musselburgh, an expensive boarding school. Somerville learned the first principles of writing, rudimentary French and English grammar. Upon returning home, she:

“…was no longer amused in the gardens, but wandered about the country. When the tide was out I spent hours on the sands, looking at the star-fish and sea-urchins, or watching the children digging for sand-eels, cockles, and the spouting razor-fish. I made collections of shells, such as were cast ashore, some so small that they appeared like white specks, some so small that they appeared like white specks in patches of black sand. There was a small pier on the sands for shipping limestone brought from the coal mines inland. I was astonished to see the surface of these blocks of stone covered with beautiful impressions of what seemed to be leaves; how they got there I could not imagine, but I picked up the broken bits, and even large pieces, and brought them to my repository.”

Mary Somerville, Architect Rational, (1780-1872) was an innovative and talented science communicator, with an extraordinary (and mostly self taught) grasp of mathematics in an era when most women had no access to formal education. As a direct result of her work, calculus was introduced to the English speaking scientific world, the idea of physics (as a single subject containing topics such as optics, thermodynamics and astronomy) was invented, and the term “scientist” was coined to describe people who studied the various sciences.

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