Tag: Mary Somerville

visitors and residents

Unique creation by Sophie of Kellogg. Commercial use by negotiation.
Unique creation by Sophie of Kellogg. Commercial use by negotiation.

Last night I dined at Kellogg again. Now that I am a visiting fellow rather than a resident one I was pleased to be invited to be guest Chamberlaine for the evening.

It was Scholars evening, so we celebrated the many generous gifts of donors to the College, some of whom are alumni, and others who just believe that the work of the College and the work of these individual students is worth supporting. I had lovely company at dinner sitting with social policy champion Amanda and Heather, Desmond Tutu Scholar and Wikipedia researcher.

I chose the importance of voting as the theme for my after dinner speech. We had a number of guests from Somerville College so I was able to make reference to Mary Somerville’s campaigns for women’s suffrage as well as the recent MCR elections, the Scottish independence referendum and the imminent general election.

I was also able to remind the current University of Oxford students that until 1950 as a graduate of that ( and this) university you would actually have had 2 votes in a UK general election. One for the area of the country where you reside, one for the university constituency.

The university constituencies, Oxford, Cambridge, University of London, the ancient Scottish universities and Queens Belfast all sent elected MPs to Westminster.

This was a wheeze started by the Scots and imported to England following the union of the crowns. It went on for a very long time. Several Cromwells, Pitt the Younger, Lord Palmerston, Francis Bacon, Issac Newton, Robert Peel and Ramsay MacDonald benefitted from the arrangement. Needless to say, it did nothing for the town and gown relations in any of the cities and was all ended by the Representation of the Peoples Act in 1948.

In preparing the speech I made use of a very handy OER from University of Cambridge: ‘Dons in the House’.


Ada and Mary

Thomas Phillips - Mary Fairfax, Mrs William Somerville, 1780 - 1872. Writer on science - Google Art Project.jpg
“Thomas Phillips – Mary Fairfax, Mrs William Somerville, 1780 – 1872. Writer on science – Google Art Project” by Thomas Phillips – vgGXxVhiio34ew at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

So, we were talking about the connections between Ada Lovelace and great Scot, Mary Somerville.

It is exciting to mention Ada in connection with Lord Byron and it helps to easily situate her in historical context, but he really didn’t play much of a role in her life.  Byron allegedly had some concern that his own waywardness might be inherited, so he left Ada’s mother when Ada was still a baby*.

While it is also exciting to think of Ada Lovelace as a pioneer, she was not actually a crusader, nor a feminist actor on any poitical stage.

If you are looking for a a female scientist and activist to celebrate,   Mary Somerville is your woman.

Mary Somerville  played a key role in defining and categorizing the physical sciences, was one of the best known scientists of the nineteenth century and a passionate reformer. She was the author of best-selling books on science and a highly respected mathematician and astronomer.  She was  a very clever woman and was for several years Ada’s tutor and mentor. A staunch supporter of women’s suffrage and a great advocate of women’s education in 1868 Mary was the first person to sign J.S Mill’s petition to Parliament in support of women’s suffrage **.

If you are interested, the Mary Somerville collection, owned by Somerville College and held at the Bodleian Library, contains a significant number of letters from Lady Lovelace and her daughter to the Somerville family. They also include an invitation from Charles Babbage to Mary Somerville and her husband to view his new ‘Calculating Engine’.  Worth checking out***.


*Well he would say that, wouldn’t he.

**read more from Somervile college history website
*** perhaps someone will map the data and connections to create a visualisation of *that* social network.