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Elizabeth A.Sackler Center for Feminist Art

Mary Somerville

b. 1780, Jedburgh, Scotland; d. 1872, Naples

Despite Mary Somerville’s lack of formal education and familial support, she became an astronomer, scientist, and mathematics expositor, well known for her skill in interpreting and presenting complex concepts. Her paper, “The Magnetic Properties of the Violet Rays of the Solar Spectrum” (1826), was one of the first to be delivered by a woman before the Royal Society. Following its success, she was commissioned in 1828 to translate and explain a work by French mathematician, astronomer, and physicist Pierre-Simon Laplace called Mécanique céleste (Celestial Mechanics, 5 vols., 1798–1827). The result was her most famous work, The Mechanism of the Heavens, which appeared in 1831. Her later books, including On the Connection of the Physical Sciences (1835), were also well received. In 1835, she and Caroline Herschel were inducted into the Royal Astronomical Society, its first female honorary members.