Patrick Cavanaugh

Mary Somerville, The First Scientist

Scientist. With a suffix akin to “artist” the term conjures the act of creation, of connecting objects and ideas to achieve new truths—or at the least, new questions.

The word was coined by Cambridge Dean William Whewell to provide a gender-neutral reference for practitioners of science, and celebrate the ability to synthesize separate fields into a single discipline.

The word scientist was meant for Mary Somerville.

Born December 26, 1780 in Scotland, her father was determined that Mary learn to write and keep accounts. This early education inspired a love of reading, including foundational texts in geometry, astronomy and physics.

Mary continued her studies with leading European scholars, and published her first paper “The magnetic properties of the violet rays of the solar spectrum” in 1826. Her seminal work, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, is a study of space, gravity, light and time and solidified her already well-established reputation. The accolades included Whewell’s coinage of “scientist” when describing her in his laudatory review.

In 1835, Mary Somerville and Caroline Herschel became the first women admitted to the Royal Astronomical Society. Mary’s later books, Physical Geography and Molecular and Microscopic Science, were also great successes and credited with popularizing science and breaking gender barriers in the field.

At age 87, Mary was the first person to sign John Stuart Mill’s petition for female suffrage, another contribution to her life’s work establishing new paradigms for achievement.

We are proud to celebrate this barrier-breaking innovator during Women’s History Month.