“Perseverance and intelligence, but no genius”: Mary Somerville's theory of differences

8 May 2018
Brigitte Stenhouse

Part of the series 'What do historians of mathematics do?'

In 1873 the Personal Recollections from Early Life to Old Age of Mary Somerville were published, containing detailed descriptions of her life as a 19th century philosopher, mathematician and advocate of women's rights. In an early draft of this work, Somerville reiterated the widely held view that a fundamental difference between men and women was the latter's lack of originality, or 'genius'.

In my talk I will examine how Somerville's view was influenced by the historic treatment of women, both within scientific research, scientific institutions and wider society. By building on my doctoral research I will also suggest an alternative viewpoint in which her work in the differential calculus can be seen as original, with a focus on her 1834 treatise On the Theory of Differences.

  • History of Mathematics Seminar