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LOOKING SKYWARD - Mulvihill Collection Acquires Mary Somerville “QUEEN OF SCIENCE” With Apparatus & Image Gallery

LET ME TELL YOU A STORY. Well, it felt like a story at the time, and not without a whisper of magic. Celtic magic. Book collectors, after all, are irrepressible raconteurs. For every book in their collection, there is a backstory to spin. Here is one of mine:
Maureen E. Mulvihill
Publié le 23 Sept. 2019

Bristol, England, sent me a lovely holiday gift in November, 2018. It was List 50 from James Burmester Rare Books: 124 offerings of English books, 1789-1900. This was a handsomely illustrated sale catalogue (8¼” x 12”) with detailed descriptions. My short list of possible buys included five items; it was then pared down to two rarities, both manageably priced.

At the top of my list was Item 76, a copy of the first issue of The Royal Irish Academy: Charter and Statutes for Promoting the Study of Science, Polite Literature, and Antiquities (Dublin: Printed by Order of the Academy, by Graisberry & Campbell, 1818; 4to., 14 pages, with large title-page vignette). This was a complete copy, in good condition, but disbound; it is now being restored to its original glory by my collection’s conservator, David H. Barry, a respected Welsh bookman, now at Griffin Bookbinding, St Petersburg, Florida. Adding this item to the Mulvihill Collection would be a handsome historical complement to the collection’s Irish items by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, Jonathan Swift, Maria Edgeworth, Mary Tighe, Mary Shackleton Leadbeater, Anna Jameson, W.B. Yeats, and a fine letterpress facsimile of the iconic 1916 Irish Proclamation (broadsheet, 16” x 24”; Ray Nichols & Jill Cypher, Lead Graffiti, Newark, Delaware, 2016), a generous gift of Maureen (Máirín) Cech, Special Collections Librarian, Delaware, now at Misericordia University, Pennsylvania.

My second purchase was a thrilling find, for a long time desired. Burmester’s item 83 was a second edition (1835) of one of the most successful science books of its day, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834; 10th ed., 1877), by a remarkable Scotswoman: Mary Fairfax Greig Somerville (Jedburgh, Scotland, 1780 - Naples, Italy, 1872). By 2018, this international bestseller was not a rare item with high commercial value, but it certainly was a special book, still collectable. (Rare Book Hub’s extensive sales database yields 23 results for “Mary Somerville”, see records 3, 4, 10, 18; it now has a 24th record.)

Mary Somerville, On The Connexion Of The Physical Sciences
London: John Murray, 1834; tenth edition, 1877. 12mo. 6 ½” x 4”. xvi + 493 pages With five plates. Mulvihill Collection (copy, above), second edition, 1835

My interest in accomplished women of science began a few years ago while preparing a scholarly essay on Margaret (Cavendish), Duchess of Newcastle (1623-1673), for my Guest Series, Old Books / New Editions, hosted by Rare Book Hub (three assessments, online, October-December, 2016). I titled my Cavendish essay, Galactic Duchess, owing to Cavendish’s interest in the New Science (Observations, 1666). Her personal collection of lenses, microscopes, and telescopes was essential context, I discovered, for her writings, especially her imaginative ‘science fiction.’

As these engagements tend to go, one writer led to another, and I soon discovered other early modern learned women (savants) with special interests in astronomy and the new scientific instruments. There was the accomplished Maria Cunitz (Poland, 1610-1669); the remarkable Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Mexico, 1651-1695); Caroline Lucretia Herschel (Germany, 1750-1848); and others, now identified and studied by feminist historians and history of science scholars. So what I had discovered in 2016 was a documentable continuum of women’s early contribution to the field of scientific investigation, especially astronomy. Chancing upon a copy of the Somerville book in November, 2018, was … pure kismet.

The career of Mary Somerville is a heartening success story. While the facts of her considerable life span, some nine decades, have been collected and published since the 19thC (see Apparatus, below), we offer the following overview to Somerville newcomers:

Mrs Somerville, as she was known, descended from durable Scots stock. Her paternal line, the Fairfaxes, was prominent for some centuries in British history (peerage, 1627). One of her predecessors, an earlier Mary Fairfax, married into the powerful Villiers line (the dukes of Buckingham). Though a stable, educated family, the Fairfaxes had seen far better days by the early 19thC: “genteel poverty” is often mentioned in modern accounts of Mary’s family setting.

As many gifted girls of her era, Mary Fairfax was not encouraged to be a student, much less a star gazer. Yet she found ways to work around immediate obstacles to her development, including a boorish first husband, Lieutenant Samuel Greig, who openly ridiculed his young wife’s ‘silly enthusiasms’. Providentially, Greig died within a few years of their marriage. Though not university-trained, Mary attracted enlightened mentors (family relations, visitors, tutors) who advanced her interest in mathematics and the sciences. With their agency, the young widow Greig established herself on useful networks, both in Scotland and England, networks which included a second husband. William Somerville, M.D., appointed physician to Chelsea Hospital, London, appreciated his talented wife, and encouraged her reading, book-buying, research, and forty-four years of professional publication (1825-1869) with the John Murray family firm of publishers.

Mrs Mary Somerville distinguished herself in scientific circles by her integrative approach and interdisciplinary methodology. As a telescopic observer of the skies and accessible science writer, she was welcomed and praised by established specialists of her day, notably Humboldt and Darwin (see Martha Somerville, editor, Recollections, 1874, Chapter 9, et passim). Mary’s principal contribution was her argument for “connexion”: an interdependence within the “physical sciences” (astronomy, physics, chemistry, mathematics, geometry):

“She made people look at science in a new way. She was very interested in light and the idea that the ultraviolet part of the prism could create magnetism. She did influential work on electromagnetism, and worked on geography, geology, and chemistry.” Alice Prochaska, Fellow, Royal Historical Society. Principal (2010-2017), Somerville College, Oxford. (see Prochaska listings, below, in Apparatus)

We imagine Mary Somerville was a strong personality, a ‘bonnie fechter,’ as the Scots would say; and her skill set included the sciences, as well as painting, piano, and opera. The genius painter, J.M.W. Turner, was one of her circle, and she visited his London studio to educate him in Newton’s prism experiments and color theory. (Cinephiles will enjoy the cameo of Mary Somerville in the 2014 film, Mr Turner.) Her circle also included Irish writer, Maria Edgeworth, who visited Mary and William Somerville at their London residence in Hanover Square, Chelsea. Another visitor, and private student, was Ada Byron, Lady Lovelace, pioneer in computer science (the new ‘calculating engine’). Mrs Somerville’s long life included two marriages, several children, published papers and books, travel, suffrage and abolition advocacy, and honorary membership in the Royal Astronomical Society. Somerville College, Oxford, is named in her honor. Upon news of her death in a telegraphic dispatch from London, The New York Times printed a front-page obituary, December 2, 1872 (online, NY Times archives). The London Morning Post remembered her that day as “the Queen of Science.”

The full article by Maureen E. Mulvihill can be accessed via the PDF here. 

Maureen E. Mulvihill (Princeton Research Forum, Princeton, NJ; formerly, Associate Fellow, Institute for Research in History, NYC) is a rare book collector and established specialist on early-modern Irish and English literatures, with strengths in Women Writers, Book History, Textual Studies, Multimedia Research, and Digital Humanities. She studied at Wisconsin (PhD, 1982), with post-doctoral training at Columbia University Rare Book School, The Yale Center for British Art, and (as NEH Fellow) The Johns Hopkins University. The Mulvihill Collection is profiled, with photo, in Fine Books & Collections magazine (autumn, 2016). She will be a guest speaker on the formation and utility of the Mulvihill Collection, FABS Tour / Florida Bibliophile Society, Spring 2020.


Details on her book credits, essays, contributions to reference works, and work in progress, may be accessed at the following links:


Image Descriptions:

1) Self-portrait [undated]. Mary Fairfax Greig Somerville (Jedburgh, Scotland, 1780 - Naples, Italy, 1872) Oil on wood panel. 59 cm x 50 cm Family bequest to Somerville College, Oxford, 1958, Lt. Col. J. Ramsay Fairfax With kind permission of the Principal and Fellows of Somerville College

2) Mary Somerville, On The Connexion Of The Physical Sciences London: John Murray, 1834; tenth edition, 1877. 12mo. 6 ½” x 4”. xvi + 493 pages With five plates. Mulvihill Collection (copy, above), second edition, 1835

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