Meet Mary Somerville: The Brilliant Woman for Whom the Word “Scientist” Was Coined
How a Scottish polymath forever changed the course of gender in science and made a high art of connecting the seemingly disconnected.
By Maria Popova
The history of science is strewn with remarkable women who overcame a crushing dearth of opportunity and towering gender bias to contribute to the corpus of human knowledge in ways that have transformed our understanding of reality, the universe, and our place in it. In history’s hindsight, their legacy lives between the heartening and the heartbreaking — both a testament to their extraordinary genius and an elegy for the tragedy of denying basic human rights to entire populations. Among the most blazing examples are pioneering physicist Lise Meitner, who discovered nuclear fission but was denied the Nobel Prize for the discovery, astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered pulsars and was similarly excluded from the Nobel for her own discovery, and astronomer Vera Rubin, who confirmed the existence of dark matter and is still bereft of a Nobel as she approaches her ninth decade. These were women who, like the early female astronomers making revolutionary astronomical discoveries decades before they were allowed to vote, never waited for the status quo to catch up to their intellectual might and merit. But despite our so-called cultural progress, women still comprise far less than half of the scientific workforce.
That women should face such an Everestine climb toward inclusion and equality is a piece of curious and rather cruel cultural irony, for the very word “scientist” didn’t always have the overwhelmingly male connotations it has had in recent history. In fact, it was a coined for a woman — the Victorian polymath Mary Somerville (December 26, 1780–November 28, 1872), who had tutored pioneering computer programmer Ada Lovelace and later introduced her to Charles Babbage, thus sparking their legendary collaboration on the world’s first computer. Somerville’s 1834 treatise On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences so impressed her peers, readers, and reviewers that “man of science” — the term used to refer to a person who had advanced the progress of knowledge — seemed suddenly inappropriate and obsolete.
Scholar Renée Bergland relays the little-known origin of the word in Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science: An Astronomer Among the American Romantics (public library) — a terrific cultural history unfolding centripetally from the biography of the trailblazing astronomer who paved the way for American women in science.
In 1834, the Cambridge don William Whewell wrote a complimentary article about Mary Somerville, a Scottish researcher whose erudite books brought together previously disparate fields of mathematics, astronomy, geology, chemistry, and physics so clearly that the texts became the backbone of Cambridge University’s first science curriculum. He called Somerville a scientist, in part because “man of science” seemed inappropriate for a woman, but more significantly because Somerville’s work was interdisciplinary. She was no mere astronomer, physicist, or chemist, but a visionary thinker who articulated the connections among the various branches of inquiry. According to Somerville’s biographer Kathryn Neeley, Whewell’s coinage of the word “scientist” was not meant to be merely a gender-neutral neutral term. Whewell wanted a word that actively celebrated “the peculiar illumination of the female mind”: the ability to synthesize separate fields into a single discipline.”
It was this ability that Virginia Woolf meant when she lauded the creative supremacy of the androgynous mind a century later.
Whewell called Somerville “a person of real science,” as opposed to the mere popularizers of science whom he held in mild disdain. In suggesting the term “scientist,” he emphasized its similarity to how the word “artist” is formed. Indeed, he had recognized in Somerville that singular creative genius of drawing connections between the seemingly disconnected, which is itself an artistic achievement. Maria Mitchell, Somerville’s American counterpart, would capture this uncommon gift in a beautiful appreciation of Somerville’s genius published in The Atlantic a quarter century later:
To read mathematical works is an easy task; the formulae can be learned and their meaning apprehended: to read the most profound of them, with such appreciation that one stands side by side with the great minds who originated them, requires a higher order of intellect; and far-reaching indeed is that which, pondering in the study on a few phenomena known by observation, develops the theory of worlds, traces back for ages their history, and sketches the outline of their future destiny.
In 1835, a year after the publication of her treatise and Whewell’s coinage of the word “scientist,” Somerville joined astronomer Caroline Herschel as the two became the first women ever admitted into the venerable Royal Astronomical Society. But, lest we forget the tectonic pace of progress, Somerville’s entry into the pantheon of science was far from unobstructed. Despite being celebrated as “the most learned woman in Europe,” in Mitchell’s words, she was denied entry into the Vatican Observatory on account of her gender. Still, without her perseverance — a testament to what Susan Sontag called “the courage of an example” — the arc of accomplishment for women in science would have been rather different and would have undoubtedly taken even longer to bend toward justice and equality.
Complement with Maria Mitchell on why women are better suited for astronomy than men, Einstein’s emboldening letter of advice to a young South African girl who wanted to be a scientist but feared her gender would hold her back, and this wonderful illustrated celebration of women in science.
UPDATE: Find more of Somerville, her unusual life, and her far-reaching legacy, in my book Figuring.
Published December 26, 2016