The Momentous Discovery of Agnes and Margaret Smith

Saint Catherine's Monastery, Sinai, Egypt by Berthold Werner (source)

Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, Egypt by Berthold Werner (source)

In St. Catherine’s monastery at Mount Sinai, there is a special decorated box with an outer wooden cover and an inner glass cover. Inside the box, carefully wrapped in silk is a manuscript which is the oldest extant copy of the four canonical gospels in Syriac. This manuscript was first discovered and photographed by Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson, two middle-aged ladies who undertook the journey by camel to the monastery in the late 19th century.

This wasn’t the first journey they had taken. Agnes and Margaret Smith, identical twins, were raised by their father who had a love of travel. Their mother died soon after their birth on January 11,1843, and he decided to raise them on his own. This included educating them “as though they were boys.” At some point he discovered that the girls had a talent for languages and told them that when they learned a language, he would take them to the country where it was spoken. With this incentive, they learned French, Spanish, German, and Italian and were rewarded with wonderful travels.

Irvin in the early 19th century, about 30 miles southwest of Glasgow where the sisters grew up (source)

Irvin in the early 19th century, about 30 miles southwest of Glasgow where the sisters grew up (source)

John Smith was a self-made man, a solicitor with a client base that gave him a respectable income. All of this changed when one of his clients, John Ferguson, died leaving what was at the time, the largest estate to be settled in the courts of Scotland. Ferguson was the recipient of the fortunes of four unmarried uncles who died intestate. He was also a distant relative of John Smith. This event made two great changes in the lives of the sisters. First, on the death of their father, they would become very wealthy, and second their father had to go to America to settle much of the estate. The girls were put into a boarding school, Birkenhead, near Liverpool, having to leave the small town of Irvine where they had grown up.

After the return of John Smith, the sisters continued their education at Birkenhead, then went on to a year of finishing school in London. The family moved to Kilbarchan, a village closer to Glasgow from which Smith could administer the foundation which received the bulk of Ferguson’s wealth. He also might have been thinking of the sister’s futures, hoping to introduce them to appropriate society for young women of wealth. Smith was a practical man, their lifestyle didn’t change drastically, and he framed his will so that the girls wouldn’t be left destitute in the event they married fortune hunters. Sadly, this became important sooner than expected. John Smith died when the girls were only 23 years old.

Bereft of their beloved father and without close relatives to interfere, the sisters decided to take a trip to Egypt. Some may have considered their trip too soon after their father’s death, but they had been raised not to worry too much about what others thought, and traveling brought back many wonderful memories of him. They had been raised strict Presbyterians and Egypt at the time, prior to many ancient archaeological discoveries, was considered the Holy Land, and with a planned trip to Jerusalem after sailing down the Nile, this silenced many critics. This trip (worthy of a post all its own) confirmed for the sisters a maxim that they would abide by for the rest of their travels, that you shouldn’t travel in countries where you don’t know the language. Their journey overland in Europe, down the Danube to Constantinople, then by steamer to Alexandria went without difficulties as the sisters spoke most of the languages they encountered. However, when they reached Egypt, they didn’t speak Arabic. This is something they would remedy on returning home.

Traveling party on a later trip to Cyprus (source)

Traveling party on a later trip to Cyprus (source)

When Agnes and Margaret returned home, there wasn’t much to hold them in the small town of Kilbarchan, so they moved to London. Over the next 15 – 20 years, the sisters would continue their studies learning ancient Greek and Hebrew, but also learning to speak Arabic and modern Greek. Of course they also continued to travel, including one interesting adventure to Cyprus and Greece where they traveled over the Peloponnese on horseback.

It was also during this time that both sisters met and married wonderful men who were very well-suited to them. After a 12 year courtship, Margaret married James Gibson in 1883. Unfortunately, he died only three years later in October of 1886. Margaret was so distraught that Agnes was afraid to leave her alone. Needing to get away, but not wanting to take a long trip, the sisters went to Cambridge for a month. It was here that Agnes met Samuel Lewis, who she married the next year.

Samuel Lewis was an administrator of the Parker Library, an expert in ancient texts, a collector and an inveterate traveler. He also was very gregarious and frequently brought home guests, introducing Agnes and Margaret to academic circles which were usually closed to women. Ironically, Agnes’s marriage also lasted only three years, ending with Samuel’s death in 1891. As had become their pattern, the sisters began planning another trip, this time to Sinai to travel in the footsteps of Moses.

Mount Sinai, the designated place where Moses saw the burning bush and received the Ten Commandments, was also the site of St. Catherine’s monastery. Agnes and Margaret were aware of the recent discoveries at the monastery, including Codex Sinaiticus, discovered by Constantin von Tischendorf in 1859, and hoped to gain access to manuscripts. A friend and paleographer, Rendel Harris, had recently been to the monastery and had a good relationship with the monks. He told Agnes about a cache of manuscripts written in Syriac which he had not had time to examine. Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic once spoken over much of the Middle East, and you won’t be surprised to learn that Agnes began to study it.

Over the months of planning, Agnes obtained a working knowledge of Syriac, and Harris also convinced the sisters to learn to use a camera. Once in Cairo, Egypt, (this time able to speak Arabic) they were able to hire an excellent dragoman, to organize their trip across the Sinai desert to the monastery, as well as introduce themselves to the Patriarch of the Greek Church. Supplied with letters of introduction from the Archbishop and Rendel Harris, the sisters set out for Suez. On January 28, 1892, they began their nine-day journey across the Sinai desert by camel.

Two pages from the Sinaitic Palimpsest (source)

Two pages from the Sinaitic Palimpsest. You can see how the underwriting from the original text shows through. (source)

The party was warmly received by the Prior of the monastery and Galaktéon, the librarian who fondly remembered Rendel Harris. Once their camp was set up in the garden, the sisters attended the afternoon church service, but on Monday February 8, they began the work they had come to do. Although Galaktéon didn’t understand why they wanted to see the oldest manuscripts as opposed to the beautiful illuminated volumes, he gave them access to the dark closet Rendel Harris remembered. There Agnes found an intriguing volume whose pages were stuck together.

Using their tea kettle to steam the pages, they were able to open the manuscript and discovered it was a palimpsest. A palimpsest is a manuscript whose pages have been recycled. The vellum has been scraped to remove the original text and been written over. Over time, however, the original words begin to show through. Agnes could read enough of the underlying Syriac to tell that she was looking at an old copy of the four canonical gospels. The upper layer was a text about the lives of women saints dated 778 CE, so the underlying gospels must be much older.

Agnes and Margaret photographed the entire manuscript as well as other documents, taking 1000 pictures over all, and hurried back to England to tell scholars about their find. Their challenges weren’t over. They had to develop their photographs, which they did themselves, and Agnes had to convince Professors Robert Bensly and Francis Burkitt, Syriac experts, of the value of their find. This she did and the next year a second expedition was mounted, this time including Bensley and Burkitt with their wives, and Rendel Harris.

The second expedition resulted in the transcription of the manuscript, and cataloging of all of the Syriac and Arabic texts in the library. These catalogs translated from Syriac to Greek by Agnes and and Arabic to Greek by Margaret were invaluable to the monks and to future scholars. Although, the expedition was filled with tension and mutual suspicion, eventually the manuscript was published.

The Syriac Sinaiticus, or Sinaitic Palimpsest, as it is now called, dates to the late 4th century and is the oldest known copy of the gospels in Syriac. It was the most important manuscript find since the Codex Sinaiticus and over time launched Agnes and Margaret into serious careers. Their work wasn’t honored by the University of Cambridge, which didn’t admit women, but they received honorary degrees from the universities at Halle, Heidelberg, Dublin and St. Andrews.


Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels by Janet Soskice
Professor Janet Soskice videotaped 52 minute lecture at Catholic University’s Mullen Library (2009)
(I highly recommend both the book and the lecture by Professor Janet Soskice.)
How the Codex Was Found by Margaret Dunlop Gibson at Internet Archive
“Sisters of Semitics: A Fresh Appreciation of the Scholarship of Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson” by Rebecca J. W. Jefferson, Medieval Feminist Forum (free download)

Would you be interested in reading more about the sisters adventures? If so, let me know in the comments.

Agnes Smith Lewis, original photo by Kaihsu Tai (source)

Agnes Smith Lewis, original photo by Kaihsu Tai (source)

Margaret Dunlop Gibson, original photo by Kaihsu Tai (source)

Margaret Dunlop Gibson, original photo by Kaihsu Tai (source)

Mary Fairfax Somerville – Mathematics by Candlelight

Mary Fairfax Somerville, c. 1834, by Thomas Phillips

Mary Fairfax Somerville, c. 1834, by Thomas Phillips (source)

“I was annoyed that my turn for reading was so much disapproved of, and thought it unjust that women should have been given a desire for knowledge if it were wrong to acquire it.”

Mary Fairfax Somerville

The 17th and 18th century women mathematicians and scientists that we’ve looked at so far have been accepted into intellectual circles. Their intelligence and works were recognized and in Italy they were even allowed to teach. They were accepted that is, once they got there. Maria Agnesi, Emilie du Chatelet, and Laura Bassi all had one advantage – parents, or at least fathers, that indulged their intellectual curiosity and gave them the education they craved. Mary Fairfax Somerville did not have this advantage.

As a young girl, Mary Fairfax, born in Jedburgh, Scotland on December 26, 1780, was by her own admission a “wild creature.” Her father, a Vice Admiral in the British Navy, was away from home for long periods of time and her mother was quite permissive. With the exception of learning to read the Bible, the catechism, and daily prayers, she received no academic lessons. She was taught “useful” skills, how to care for the garden, preserve fruit, tend the chickens and cows, tasks reserved for the women of the household. Apart from these chores, there were few demands made on her time, so she would roam the countryside and seashore near her home in Burntisland, Scotland observing sea creatures and birds, collecting things, and learning the names of the plants around her home. At night, the stars she could see from her window held equal fascination.

When she was about nine years old, this carefree existence came to an end when her father returned from a long voyage to learn that Mary’s reading skills were minimal and she couldn’t write. At least the basics were expected of young women, so Mary was sent to a school run by Miss Primrose. In spite of her intellectual curiosity, Mary didn’t fair well at the school where she was expected to prepare lessons laced into stiff stays and steel busks designed to improve her posture. The teaching techniques focused on memorization including pages from the dictionary and gave little room for curiosity or critical thinking.  After one year at the school, she returned home and continued her wandering existence, but at least she had increased reading skills that allowed her to enjoy a small number of books in their home. Mary’s only other formal education was a year spent in a local school where she learned to “write a good hand”, basic arithmetic, and the womanly arts of needlework, painting, music, etc.

Mary’s interest in mathematics was piqued by a couple of chance encounters. Once during a party she was paging through a women’s magazine and came across a puzzle. When she looked at the answer it had x’s and y’s in the solution. Curious, she asked a friend who told her that it was something called algebra, but she couldn’t tell her what it was. The second conversation that would set the stage for her life long interest was an overheard conversation between a painting instructor and a male student. The instructor told him that he should study Euclid’s The Elements about geometry to better understand perspective.

Now Mary knew the names of two things she wanted to study, algebra and geometry, but how could she get the required books? To do this she conspired with her brother’s tutor. His skills were limited, but he agreed to obtain books for her and demonstrate the first problems in The Elements. She was on her way! Each night after the rest of the household retired, Mary would study mathematics by candlelight. But then the candle supply started to diminish and it was noticed.

For many people during this time, keeping women away from intellectual pursuits wasn’t just a matter of propriety. Some people believed that women’s minds couldn’t handle it and it would drive them crazy, or that mental exertion would take away from their ability to have children. In essence, that they had a “delicate constitution” that had to be protected. In her recollections of childhood, Mary recalls her father saying, “Peg, we must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a straight-jacket one of these days. There was X who went raving mad about the longitude.” So when her parents discovered that she was studying at night, the servants were instructed to take away her candles. However, at this point she had already progressed through the first six books of Euclid, so she depended on her memory and worked through the problems in her mind each night until she knew them thoroughly.

In 1804, Mary was married to a distant cousin, Samuel Greig. Although not interested himself, it seems that Greig tolerated Mary’s intellectual interests, but the marriage was short-lived. Greig died in 1807 leaving Mary with two boys and a small inheritance. She returned to her parent’s home, but her inheritance gave her an independence that allowed her to continue her studies. She began reading The Mathematical Repository, a journal which aimed at exposing the general public to some of the new developments in mathematics. Through the journal, she began a correspondence with William Wallace a professor at the University of Edinburgh. Wallace provided Mary with a list of important books on mathematics and science, and she began to accumulate a library.

Mary’s second marriage to another cousin, Dr. William Somerville, inspector of the Army Medical Board, was completely different. Dr. Somerville didn’t just tolerate Mary’s interests, he encouraged them. Together they raised a family, traveled, collected specimens, and associated with some of the greatest scientists and mathematicians of the day. They would remain together for the rest of their lives.

Mary’s first work was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London and titled “On the Magnetizing Power of the More Refrangible Solar Rays.” Although she was not a member of the Society at the time (1826) and her paper had to be presented by her husband, it attracted the attention of Lord Brougham, of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. He commissioned her to write what would become probably her greatest and most well-known work, a translation of Laplace’s Mécanique Céleste.  The purpose of the Society of the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge was to make new scientific discoveries accessible to the general public that might not have the educational background to read the original documents. As it turned out Mary had a gift for this type of writing.

Mary had studied Laplace’s work, but being largely self-taught and having doubts about her ability to do it justice, she extracted a promise from Lord Brougham and her husband that if it wasn’t sufficient it would be burned. She spent the next four to five years working on it and when it was complete it was much more than Lord Brougham needed. Her introduction alone met his needs and was published separately, but the entire work was published as The Mechanism of the Heavens and became a favorite among students at Cambridge. She had a gift of being able to communicate in clear, concise terms, complicated subjects, translating as she said “algebra into English.” Her later works include On the Connection of the Physical Sciences published in 1846, Physical Geography in 1848, and Molecular and Microscopic Science in 1860.

Mary Somerville continued writing for the rest of her long life. She died in Naples, Italy on November 28, 1872. Her legacy is one of excellently written scientific books that continued in use for many years, but also one of what a woman can do when she has a drive to do it. As she said herself it is indeed “unjust that women should have been given a desire for knowledge if it were wrong to acquire it.”

Personal Recollections from Early Life to Old Age of Mary Somerville by Martha Somerville
Women in Mathematics by Lynn Osen
Notable Women in Mathematics edited by Charlene Morrow and Teri Perl

Read about other Famous Women Mathematicians and Scientists.