Speaker: Brigitte Stenhouse (The Open University)
Abstract: 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, she tenaciously pursued her studies through independent reading and the solving of problems published in the Question and Answer sections of journals. 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. Moreover, she was able to leverage her knowledge of this esoteric and highly valued mathematics to build a successful career as an author of scientific books which lasted over forty years. However, the type of books that Somerville wrote and published, especially regarding mathematical content, was heavily influenced by both her gender and her need to make a profit from her writing.
This talk will give a summary of my doctoral thesis, which presented the first scholarly treatment of Somerville as a "mathematician" encompassing both her engagement with scientific society and her written works.