The scientist Mary Somerville will be the first woman other than a royal to appear on a Royal Bank of Scotland banknote – but only after a steward’s inquiry over an apparent attempt to rig the vote.
Some 4,100 people voted via Facebook for Somerville, whose academic writing played a pivotal role in the discovery of the planet Neptune, to appear on a new £10 note.
A groundswell of support, including a Facebook campaign by students at the Oxford University college bearing her name, put Somerville way out in front on Sunday, the last day of voting. Rival candidate Thomas Telford, the civil engineer known affectionately as the “Colossus of Roads”, could only muster a meagre 500 votes with just hours to spare.
But a last-minute surge of voting, much of it from India but also from other countries, saw Telford accelerate past Somerville to reach 5,100 votes by the deadline. James Clerk Maxwell, the physicist whose study of electromagnetism inspired Albert Einstein, limped home a distant third.
But after discussions between Facebook and RBS, the late influx of votes was deemed suspicious. RBS later declared the result null and void, meaning Somerville’s face will adorn the bank’s new polymer £10 notes from 2017.
“It looks as if something dodgy has gone on. Mary Somerville was clearly the public’s choice,” said the source.
The decision to overturn the result means Somerville will become the first woman other than the Queen to appear on a mainstream RBS banknote issue since they were first printed in 1727.
“Having the opportunity to choose the face of our new £10 notes obviously meant a great deal to a great number of people,” said the RBS Scotland chair, Malcolm Buchanan.
“Mary Somerville’s immense contribution to science and her determination to succeed against all the odds clearly resonate as much today as they did during her lifetime.”
Born in 1780, Somerville’s relative wealth allowed her access to education in astronomy and geography, despite living in an age when women were discouraged from studying science. She is credited with an instrumental role in the discovery of Neptune, thanks to her writing on a hypothetical planet perturbing the orbit of Uranus.
Somerville, who died in 1872, is also indelibly linked to the advancement of women in academia, having given her name to the Oxford college that initially only admitted women.
Alumni of Somerville College, founded in 1879, include the former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the TV presenter Esther Rantzen and the former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi.
RBS’s decision to include a woman on its shortlist follows a high-profile row in 2013, when the Bank of England faced criticism for replacing the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry with Winston Churchill on the £5 note from 2016.
The decision left no women on English banknotes at all, prompting a successful campaign led by the journalist Caroline Criado-Perez to put the face of Jane Austen on the £10 note.
This article was written by Rob Davies, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 10th February 2016 18.42 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010