“Perseverance and intelligence, but no genius”: Mary Somerville's theory of differences

In 1873 the Personal Recollections from Early Life to Old Age of Mary Somerville were published, containing detailed descriptions of her life as a 19th century philosopher, mathematician and advocate of women’s rights. In an early draft of this work, Somerville reiterated the widely held view that a fundamental difference between men and women was the latter’s lack of originality, or ‘genius’.

In my talk I will examine how Somerville’s view was influenced by the historic treatment of women, both within scientific research, scientific institutions and wider society. By building on my doctoral research I will also suggest an alternative viewpoint in which her work in the differential calculus can be seen as original, with a focus on her 1834 treatise On the Theory of Differences.