Dubreil-Jacotin on Mary Somerville

Marie-Louise Dubreil-Jacotin contributed an article about women mathematicians to the original French text of the book translated into English as [F Le Lionnais, Great Currents of Mathematical Thought (London, 1971)]. When she wrote the article, Dubreil-Jacotin was Professor, Science Faculty, Poitiers. In the extract below she writes about the contribution of Mary Somerville:-


Far from being encouraged by their families, it was only by main force against their parents that the two following women succeeded, almost simultaneously, in becoming brilliant mathematicians. ...

[Sophie Germain's] contemporary, Mary Fairfax, born in 1780, met from her father, a Scotch admiral, the same hostility toward her mathematical studies; and, despite her precocious propensities, it was only after a short widowhood and then remarriage to her cousin Somerville, that she succeeded in asserting herself as a mathematician. A long life - she died in Naples at 92 - made it possible for her to leave a respectable output under the name of Mary Somerville, as well as the memory of a devoted wife and a good mother. Mary Somerville's principal work consisted of translating and thus making known to her contemporaries the celestial mechanics of Laplace and of adding to it personal notes of real value. Mary Somerville also left a goodly number of papers in mathematics and physics; she was pensioned by Queen Victoria for her scientific work.

Mary Somerville had also had the honour of introducing to mathematics the only daughter of Lord Byron, Ada Byron - Countess Lovelace born in 1815, died in 1852. Raised far from all paternal influence, Ada Byron was early attracted to mathematics, and distinguished herself therein; she left original works which she signed A L L, a pseudonym whose true meaning was disclosed only thirty years later by General Menabrea, a correspondent of the Paris Academy of Sciences, and Italian ambassador to France.


JOC/EFR March 2006

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