Glimpses of Girton - Mary Somerville's scientific library

Self-taught mathematician and scientific best-seller, Mary Somerville's most recent claim to fame is as the winner of a public vote to decide the face of the Royal Bank of Scotland's new £10 note, due out this year:

Somerville College in Oxford (founded in 1879, six years after her death) bears Mary Somerville's name but it was to Girton College that her daughters, Martha and Mary, gave her scientific books and offprints.  There is no extant correspondence about the gift but the minutes of the Executive Committee meeting of 19 May 1873 read:

"Miss Davies having reported that the books given by the Misses Somerville had been received, it was resolved that the cordial thanks of the College be offered to the Misses Somerville for their valuable gift of books from the late Mrs Somerville's Library & that the Committee desire to express their sense of the honour thus conferred upon the College."[1]


Mrs Somerville had links to both Emily Davies and Barbara Bodichon through her good friend Frances Power Cobbe. Mary and Frances had met in Florence in the late 1850s and bonded during an anti-vivisection campaign there.  Mary later described Frances as "a brilliant, charming companion, and a warm and affectionate friend. She is one of the few with whom I keep up a correspondence."[2]  Frances was one of the earliest members of the Kensington Society and helped to organise the 1866 suffrage petition: Mary wrote of herself:

"I joined in a petition to the Senate of London University, praying that degrees might be granted to women; but it was rejected.  I have also frequently signed petitions to Parliament for the Female Suffrage, and have the honour now to be a member of the General Committee for Woman Suffrage in London."[3]

In editing her mother's Personal recollections, published in 1873, Martha Somerville noted:

"She took the liveliest interest in all that has been of late years to extend high class education to women, both classical and scientific, and hailed the establishment of the Ladies' College at Girton as a great step in the true direction, and one which could not fail to obtain most important results. Her scientific library… has been presented to this College as the best fulfilment of her wishes."[4]


The ebonised bookcase that was sent from Naples to the College still stands in the corridor outside the Library.  A bust of Mary Somerville, presented to the College by Frances Power Cobbe, stands in the niche at its centre.  The books and offprints themselves are housed in the environmentally-controlled store in the Duke Building, still as a discrete collection but linked to others of the College's special collections, as well as the collections of the College Archive, through the determination and passions of their former owners.  Not far away, Barbara Bodichon's own copy of Personal recollections is shelved, as is the copy belonging to the Blackburn collection, bequeathed by Helen Blackburn in 1903. Even now, when the role and number of women in science continues to be a controversial topic, Mary Somerville shows how far we have come – and how far we have left to go.


Published: 24 July 2017

[1] Girton College Archive reference GCGB 2/1/3

[2] Personal recollections, from the early life to old age, of Mary Somerville. With selections from her correspondence. By her daughter, Martha Somerville. London: John Murray, 1873, page 359

[3] Personal recollections, page 346

[4] Personal recollections, page 347