Friday, May 4, 2012

Feral Child to Scholar: Mary Somerville

In my third Bonnie Pinkwater mystery, Irrational Numbers, I included an assignment for a group of gifted students.  As a long time teacher--thirty-five years teaching middle and high school--I decided this would be a class of highly motivated and enthusiastic teenage girls.  I know my teacher/sleuth Bonnie Pinkwater would appreciate that.  She could joke around with them, challenge them, and most importantly, she could count on them to react in a particular way to injustice, especially injustice perpetrated on a young woman.

One of the things I've always found refreshing about teenagers is their sense of justice.  Their world is black and white.  Something is either right or it is wrong.  And if something is wrong, it should be corrected.  If a person's behavior is unacceptable and maybe even what could be classified as 'bad' the universe should--if it is a fair and just universe--bring down retribution on that person.  Truth is, I probably am still mostly a teenager myself (actually I'm 61) because I think this is precisely how the universe should work.

 Which bring us to the life of Mary Somerville.  Mary was born in 1780 in Scotland, about the time our country was involved in a bit of unpleasantness with Great Britain.  She was the child of a naval war hero and spent her days running free in the mountains and forests of her estate.  Once upon noting her appearance, her father exclaimed, "My heavens, the child is a savage."  She was dirty, illiterate, and from all evidence a happy wild creature.

This sort of thing couldn't continue.  She was shipped off to a girl's finishing school.  Naturally, she hated it and was eventually kicked out.  Yay, Mary (there's my inner teenager expressing himself).

One thing did happen that the wild child hadn't planned on, she (it seems with little help from her teachers at Mrs. Primrose's School--I'm not kidding here; that was the name of the school) taught herself to read.  And not just English but Latin as well.  In fact Latin became the more important of the two since it allowed her to read the commentaries of Caesar and the works of Virgil. It was during this time that Mary stumbled upon a problem at the back of a magazine.  It involved X's and Y's.  When she asked what these symbols represented she was told the problem had something to do with a useless form of arithmetic called Algebra.  Mary would never be the same again.

It needs to said that the general attitude toward education for young women in 18th century Great Britain was that they should learn only enough to allow them to be good mothers.  Anything more was not only a waste of time but would actually be harmful to their health--again, I'm not kidding here; Mary's parents espoused this cockswaddle.

But Mary would not be denied.  She complimented her knowledge of Latin with an understanding of Greek so she could further study Algebra then Geometry (particularly Euclid's Elements).

Her parents were appalled.

 At first they forbid her to read these seditious texts.  When she reused to quit her studies, they took away all her candles so she could only read in the day.  Did this slow her down?  No way!! She pored through all six volumes of Euclid and went on Ferguson's Astronomy and Newton's Principia (in Latin).

 Her parents then got really serious.

They took away her clothes.  If she was going to study mathematics, by God she could darn well do it naked.  So she studied in the buff.

For a brief period they withheld food, in the hope that her hunger would make her see the light of reason.  When that didn't work they rolled up their sleeves and got creative.  They married her off to a rich neanderthal named Samuel Grieg, who promised to put an end to all of this foolishness.  Unfortunately, he was no more successful in stopping Mary's unquenchable spirit than were her parents.  In fact inadvertently he did the one thing that freed up Mary to pursue her desires.

He died.

Almost three years to the day after their wedding, Samuel Grieg shuffled off his mortal coil, leaving Mary a wealthy and independent woman.  She studied Mathematics and Astronomy in earnest, and won awards for her work in Diaphantine Equations.

She also fell in love. William Somerville was a surgeon and a scholar, who supported his brilliant wife.  To say she blossomed under this support would be an understatement.  She would later be called "one of the greatest women scientists England would ever produce."

After Mary's death in 1872, Queen Victoria installed Somerville College at Oxford University, this college exists to this day at Oxford.  And the Mary Somerville Scholarship for Mathematics is still handed out yearly at the school, one hundred forty years after her death.

In Irrational Numbers, Bonnie Pinkwater's gifted female students cheered at each of Mary Somerville's triumphs.  And truth be told, even as I write this, I'm tempted to do the same.

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