Women in Mathematics on Grace Chisholm Young and Mary Fairfax Somerville

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  • Topic: Girton College, Cambridge, Mary Somerville, Grace Chisholm Young
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  • Published : October 26, 2008
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Books relating to the history of mathematics have been considered to be of male domain (Baxter 2008, p13) with many women’s contributions to the development in such a profession unvalued and unavowed (Paraphrased Baxter 2008 p13). The purpose of this essay is to discuss the factors in which contributed to both Grace Chisholm Young and Mary Fairfax Somerville’s successes in the field of mathematics; to education; to their own and future societies as well as other academic accomplishments made throughout their lives despite society’s unacceptableness of their gender in such a profession. Mary Somerville

Mary Fairfax Somerville was born Dec 26th 1780 in Jed Burgh and raised in Burnt Island, Scotland. In spite of the family’s felicitous economic positioning, “Osen (1975, p.97) states that Mary’s education had been a rather desultory one, mostly self directed, quite haphazard and scant”. Wood (1997 p.1) cites Osen in saying it was viewed upon unnecessary to educate females compared to the opportunities in which males were given, thus she only attended for a year Miss Primrose's boarding school for girls in Musselburgh. Somerville’s contributions to mathematics were incited during her childhood, and the age of thirteen she was introduced to basic mathematics and her study of algebra; as by accident she stumbled across an article within a woman's magazine. Somerville was able to convince her brother's tutor to acquire information on the subject on her behalf as it was of non-standard for females to do so in such society (paraphrased wood 1997 p.1).This initiated Somerville’s interest in mathematics, and this became the start of many future academic successes throughout her life. Somerville married Samuel Greig in 1804, Mary stated her husband “had a very low opinion of the capacity of my sex, and had neither knowledge of, or interest in science of any kind” (Martha Somerville, 1873), Greig never interfered with her studies although his opinion on “intellectual women was of low esteem” (Osen 1975, p.103). Mary and Samuel were married for three years. The passing of her husband left Somerville in a position of independency that had enabled her to further pursue her love of mathematics and astronomy freely (Paraphrased Wood 1997, p.1). In 1812 she married Dr William Somerville. He was very encouraging of Mary’s studies in spite of the disapprobation it inspired among society (paraphrased Osen 1975, p.104). Somerville in 1825 started experiments on magnesium, and in 1826 put forth a paper entitled "The Magnetic Properties of the Violet Rays of the Solar Spectrum" making it the first women’s paper read by the Royal Society, and published in its Philosophical Transactions (Wood 1997).Mary’s conjecture in this paper was to become rebutted in the future through further investigations by others. Due to her achievement she gained the respect amongst her colleagues as a skilled scientific writer (Grinstein and Campbell 1987, p2.13 cited in Wood 1997). In 1827 Somerville indited “The Mechanisms of the Heavens”, a request from Lord Brougham, on behalf of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (Osen 1975, p.106). Brougham had hoped to influence Mary to produce a more decipherable exposition on both Lap lace's Mecanique Celeste and Newton's Principia which could communicate a better understanding to a wider audience (Osen 1975, p.106). Somerville wrote her second book The Connection of the Physical Sciences, through 1832-1833 and was published in 1834. As a result she was elected into the royal Astronomical Society in 1835 (Wood 1997, p.1); Critics were amazed that a woman could indite such accuracy (Gould 2002). Somerville was elected in 1834 to the honorary membership of the Société de Physique et d'Histoire Naturelle de Genève and to the Royal Irish Academy; other publications produced by Somerville were Physical Geography in 1848, and in 1869 Molecular and Microscopic Science....
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