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Mary Somerville

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Mary Somerville

by Sir Francis Leggatt Chantrey
pencil, 1832
19 1/8 in. x 25 5/8 in. (486 mm x 651 mm)
Given by Mrs George Jones, 1871
Primary Collection
NPG 316a(115)

Sitterback to top

  • Mary Somerville (1780-1872), Scientific scholar and writer. Sitter in 5 portraits.

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This portraitback to top

These drawings of the mathematician and scientist Mary Somerville were made in preparation for the marble bust commissioned by the Royal Society to mark the publication of The Mechanism of the Heavens (1831), on modern mathematical physics. As a woman, she was debarred from the membership of the Society. Her other works include On the Connection of the Physical Sciences (1834) and Somerville College, University of Oxford, is named in her honour. The marble bust is in the Royal Society, London.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • 100 Pioneering Women, p. 53 Read entry

    Mary Somerville (1780-1872) was a Scottish mathematician and scientist, and a proponent of the emancipation and education of women. Born in Jedburgh, to Admiral Sir William Fairfax, an early chance encounter with algebra stirred her curiosity, which, with a will to learn and a move to London in 1816, drew her into intellectual and scientific circles. Although she was a highly intelligent woman, her grasp of advanced mathematics was not always appreciated in a world that expected little of her gender. Her glittering career in the male-dominated world of science and mathematics was consolidated by the success of The Mechanism of the Heavens (1831), then The Connection of the Physical Sciences (1834). In a preface to the latter, she expressed her wish ‘to make the laws by which the material world is governed, more familiar to my countrywomen’. Somerville Hall, Oxford, named in honour of her, was founded in 1879. Its founders identified her as ‘a public intellectual in an age against women pursuing academic careers’, thereby declaring their ambition for their women students. Somerville is seen here in preparatory sketches for a marble bust in the Royal Society.

  • Walker, Richard, Regency Portraits, 1985, p. 624

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Events of 1832back to top

Current affairs

William IV agrees to the creation of new peers in order to obtain the passage of the Reform Act, although this proved unnecessary when the Tories withdrew opposition. Male franchise is extended by fifty percent; fifty-six 'rotten boroughs' lose representation and forty-one new constituencies are created. Irish and Scottish Reform Acts are also passed.

Art and science

Mathematician Charles Babbage publishes his best selling Economy of Machinery and Manufactures. In response to recent outbreaks of machine-breaking and riots, he aimed to reveal the sources of Britain's industrial strength to the urban elite and promote institutional change.
Parliament votes funds for National Gallery buildings in Trafalgar Square.


Free land grants end for English settlers in Australia on recommendation of the leading colonisation theorist Edward Wakefield in his Letter from Sydney.
Greek independence recognised by the Treaty of London.

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