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Mary Somerville Collection


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The collection includes Mary's papers relating to her writing and published work, finances, and other matters, and correspondence with family members and with numerous scientists and writers who shared her interests, and others in public life. There are some letters acquired for her collection of 'Letters from Celebrated People', and papers relating to the many honours and awards she received.

In addition to Mary's papers, the collection includes correspondence and papers of William, Martha and Mary C. Somerville; Mary's parents, Vice Admiral Sir William George Fairfax and Lady Margaret Charters Fairfax; Mary's son, Woronzow Greig and his wife, Agnes (nee Graham); Mary's brother, Henry, his family, and the family of his first wife, Montgomerie Williamson; Thomas Somerville, Mary's father in law; and of other members of the extended family, as well as substantial correspondence between members of the Somerville and Greig families and the Byron and Lovelace families.


  • Creation: Creation: Majority of material found within Bulk, 1778-1879
  • Creation: Creation: [c.1700]-1972


3.0 Linear metres (40 shelfmarks)

Language of Materials

  • English

Preferred Citation

Oxford, Bodleian Libraries [followed by shelfmark and folio or page reference, where available, e.g. Dep c. 351, fols. 1-2].

Please see our help page for further guidance on citing archives and manuscripts.

Full range of shelfmarks:

Dep. c. 351-378, Dep. b. 157, 205, 205*, 206 a-b, 207-209, 232 a-c, 233.

Collection ID (for staff)

CMD ID 12230


Correspondence and papers of Mary Somerville (1780-1872), science writer and mathematics expositor, and of the Somerville and related families.

Biographical / Historical

Mary Fairfax, daughter of William George Fairfax (1739-1813) and Margaret Charters (1741-1832), was born in Jedburgh in 1780. She grew up in Burntisland, Fife. Though she received little formal education, she was helped by her uncle, Rev. Thomas Somerville, to learn Latin, and she read mathematics independently. In 1804 Mary married Samuel Greig (1777/8-1807), who served as commissioner for the Russian navy and Russian vice-consul in London. They had two sons, Woronzow (1805-1865) and William George (1807-1814). Mary continued her studies in London. She returned to Scotland in 1807 on the death of her husband. There she received tuition in mathematics from William Wallace, later professor of mathematics at Edinburgh University, and his brother, John.

In 1812 Mary married William Somerville (1771-1860), an army doctor and her cousin, son of Rev. Thomas Somerville and Martha Charters. Four years later Mary, William and their daughters, Martha Charters and Mary Charlotte, moved to London, where Mary furthered her knowledge through correspondence and meetings with many of the leading scientific figures of the time. The astronomer, J.F.W. Herschel, was to become an especially valued friend and adviser.

Mary began to publish in 1826, with a report of observations on the magnetizing power of sunlight. In 1827 she was asked by Henry Brougham, later 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux, Lord Chancellor, to prepare an English version of Laplace's Mécanique Céleste (1797-1827). The Mechanism of the Heavens was published by John Murray in 1831. The next year, Preliminary Dissertation to the Mechanism of the Heavens appeared. Later works by Mary, some of which ran to many editions, were On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834), Physical Geography (1848) and On Molecular and Microscopic Science (1869). Her autobiography, Personal Recollections, from Early Life to Old Age, was published posthumously in 1873.

In 1838 the Somervilles moved to Rome for the winter. They remained in Italy thereafter. Mary died in Naples on 29 Nov 1872. She had received many honours during her lifetime, and after her death, Somerville College, Oxford, founded in 1879 as a women's college, was named after her. A Somerville scholarship for women also commemorates her name.

For further information see Oxford Dictionary of National Biography


There is evidence of Mary's own arrangement of her papers, particularly in the series of 'Letters from Celebrated People' and 'Diplomas' (honours and awards). Many explanatory labels in her hand survive throughout the collection. Her arrangement appears to have been preserved to a large extent by later cataloguers, possibly family members, who added further notes, and Elizabeth Chambers Patterson, who drew up a catalogue of the collection in the late 1960s.

Material added to the collection in 1972 was catalogued by Patterson as Supplement I. A small number of letters added in 1979 were incorporated into the relevant catalogue series. Further material found in 1980 was catalogued as Supplement II. Patterson's arrangement has been preserved in the present catalogue, though the contents of Supplements I and II have been listed with the catalogue series they belong to, still identified by the numbers 2 (for Supplement I) and 3 (for Supplement II) in the folder reference - eg MSIF2-40, MSAU2-8, MS3FP-10. An exception to this form of identification occurs with the 'Genealogy of Sir William George Herbert Taylor Fairfax, Bart.' (Dep. b. 209 in 'Genealogy', formerly 'Family Trees'), which was part of Supplement 1, but had no folder reference.

Dep. b. 206 and Dep. b. 232, which contained material belonging to more than one series, have been reboxed as Dep. b. 206 a & b (2 boxes) and Dep. b. 232 a-c (3 boxes).

Some papers of William Somerville are arranged separately from the main series of family papers.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Deposited at Somerville College by Sir Brian Fairfax-Lucy and transferred on deposit to the Bodleian Library in 1965. Ownership passed to Somerville College in 1994.

Related Materials

Further papers of and relating to Mary Somerville, not forming part of this collection, have been acquired by Somerville College. A list of these is available from the College.

Catalogue of the Mary Somerville Collection, [c.1700]-1972 CMD ID 12230
In Process Phillip R
Finding aid prepared by Original finding aid prepared by Elizabeth Chambers Patterson. Expanded by Chrissie Webb in 2013.
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Description is written in: English, Latin script.
Catalogued with the generous support of the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation.

Repository Details

Part of the Bodleian Libraries Repository

Weston Library
Broad Street
Oxford OX1 3BG United Kingdom