Mary Somerville was an exceptional individual. Although self-educated and - as a woman - barred from higher education and membership in scientific societies, her books sold well and were used as textbooks for many decades.

She was born in Jedburgh, Scotland on 26 Dec 1780. Her family's idea of education for girls was needlework and drawing, not mathematics. In fact, Mary excelled at needlework and was an accomplished artist, but mathematics she learned by listening in on her brother's lessons, and from books. Her flair and love for mathematics led her later into the physical sciences.

Somerville taught herself French, and the first book she had published was an English translation and her own exposition of Laplace's work on celestial mechanics. It's a science classic, a highly mathematical discussion of the movements of bodies in the Solar System. She went on to write books that became textbooks on astronomy and on physical geography. Both the Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Geographical Society gave her awards, even though, as a woman, she would not have been allowed to attend their meetings.

Mona Evans
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