Mary Fairfax: A Brief Biography

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Mary Fairfax was born on 28th December 1780, in a Mansion on the Scottish Borders. In a time when women were not considered full citizens- with no right to vote, and a minimal education provided only to the ladies of the elite, Mary Fairfax broke all boundaries to prove to society that gender and brilliance are not mutually excusive. Her story is one of courage and determination. Having read through her biography, I was convinced that she was a fascinating human being. In this essay I will focus on the socio-cultural context of her accomplishments, particularly due to her gender.

Daughter of Sir William Fairfax of the Royal Navy, Mary Fairfax was brought up in the small coastal town of Burntisland, near Edinburgh. She describes the town as
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She died in her sleep on the 29th of November 1872 in Naples.
While Mary Somerville was accepted as a crucial member of the scientific community, it is significant to note that the general attitude of the times was still reflected through statements such as ‘it requires a moment's reflection to be aware that one is hearing something very extraordinary from the mouth of a woman’ (James David Forbes, later Principal of the University of St Andrew) and ‘ the sobriquet of the Rose of Jedburgh [as she was known] formed a piquet contrast to her masculine intellect’ (Ellen Mary Clerke). This very attitude may have been the reason she never carried out research of her own
Mary Fairfax Somerville herself was against all forms of ‘oppression and tyranny’ and ‘resented the injustice of the world in denying all those privileges of education to [her] sex which were so lavishly bestowed on men’ [2]. She described herself as ‘growing more liberal over time’. From fighting for women’s education and suffrage, to fighting against slavery, Mary Somerville was not merely a great mathematician, astronomer, or geographer- she was one of the great minds of her time, and, above all, a humanitarian. I would like to conclude with a quote from the astronomer R.A. Procter in the ‘Obituary Notice of Mary Somerville’,
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