Mary Somerville: being and becoming a mathematician in 19th-century Britain

Mary Somerville (1780-1872) was unequivocally one of the best-known mathematicians in Britain during the first half of the nineteenth-century. Barred from receiving a formal education owing to her gender, she tenaciously pursued her studies through independent reading and the solving of problems published in Question and Answer sections of periodicals. Through her deft navigation of polite society in Edinburgh, London, and Paris, she was able to build a reputation for herself as an expert in analytical mathematics, especially as it was practiced and taught in France. At a time when British mathematics was widely perceived to be in decline, Somerville positioned herself within a network of mathematicians who saw the adoption of analytical methods as the way to reform.

This talk will consider how Somerville was able to overcome barriers of gender, and utilise her relatively high social status, in order to access highly advanced mathematical knowledge and gain for herself the title of mathematician.