Published On: Sun, Sep 1st, 2019

Mary Ward: Feminist famous as the first person to be killed in a car accident

Mary Ward’s life ended suddenly and shockingly on a quiet country road on August 31, 1869. Fearful Death of a Lady, ran the headline in the local newspaper. The manner of her demise 150 years ago earned her a macabre place in the annals of motoring as the victim of the world’s first fatal car accident. But Mary deserves to be remembered for more than her violent end, because she was as unusual in life as she was in death – a talented and tenacious woman who broke through glass ceilings in a man’s world with breathtaking success.

Born Mary King in 1827, the Irish clergyman’s daughter had a blissful childhood near Ferbane in County Offaly. Fascinated by nature, she collected butterflies and other insects at the age of three. As she grew older, she took to examining specimens through her father’s magnifying glass and drawing them in near-photographic detail.

It was an era when women were not expected to have any scientific ability and received little education beyond the domestic sciences. They were usually ostracised from the scientific community. Libraries and laboratories were closed to women, and Irish universities accepted few female students.

Mary had no formal schooling and was taught to read and write by a governess. She was fortunate in that her enlightened, well-to-do parents encouraged her interests. A visiting scientist who saw her examining insects under the magnifying glass was so impressed that he persuaded her father to buy her the best microscope that money could buy. She used it to further her studies of plants and animals, teaching herself to make her own microscope slides from ivory, since glass was not plentiful. In the stream near her home she caught minnows and tadpoles, placing them below what she called the microscope’s “magic tube” before releasing them into the water.

In her quest for knowledge, she also benefited from being a first cousin of renowned astronomer William Parsons, the third Earl of Rosse, who lived 12 miles away at Birr Castle. During Mary’s teenage years, Rosse began building what was to become the world’s largest telescope for the next 70 years – the 58ft Leviathan. Mary was fascinated by her cousin’s creation, using it not only to study the night sky herself, but sketching each stage of its construction. She was one of the first to climb up to the Leviathan’s gantries and galleries, and later told how she “more than once stood in bitter frost long after midnight” to view the heavens. Her knowledge of astronomy soon rivalled that of Lord Rosse himself. When he became President of the Royal Society in 1848, he regularly invited her to dinner parties. On one occasion, when he was unable to answer a visitor’s query, he replied: “My cousin Mary knows rather more than I do on that subject. I recommend that you address your question to her.”

In 1854, she married the honourable Henry Ward and gave birth to eight children over the next 13 years. Her soldier husband, a Crimean War veteran, took little interest in domestic matters, leaving it to Mary to raise the family and to handle the precarious household finances while he devoted himself to hunting, sport and regimental dinners.

Despite her exhausting homemaking duties, she continued to pursue her scientific interests, writing up the results of her research late at night when the children were in bed. In 1857 her first book, Sketches With The Microscope was published. It sold out in months, and the following year a London firm, Groombridge, published it as The World Of Wonders As Revealed By The Microscope. It was an immediate best-seller.

In 1859, she published a companion book, Telescope Teachings, featuring one of her drawings of the Leviathan on its cover. On top of her books, she wrote numerous articles for journals on scientific subjects, illustrating them with exquisite drawings and paintings. The British Museum requested her painting of a natterjack toad to add to its collection.

As her reputation grew, she became a respected member of the scientific community, and was placed on the Royal Astronomical Society’s mailing list, one of only three women to be accorded this privilege, the others being Queen Victoria and the mathematician and polymath Mary Somerville. She was also asked to illustrate the books of other authors, such as the physicist David Brewster’s Life Of Newton. In 1862 she persuaded the Royal Observatory at Greenwich to make her the sole exception to its men-only rule, and was allowed inside to view its marvels.

It was her interest in scientific inventions that led to her death at the age of 42. During the 1860s, two of the Earl of Rosse’s sons designed and built an experimental steam-driven car at Birr Castle, which they used on the estate and on journeys in the surrounding countryside.

Mary and her husband visited the castle in 1869 and were invited to go for a spin. The vehicle was driven by the younger son, Charles Parsons, who was just 15 years old.

Travelling at little more than 3mph, the car went round a sharp corner near the church. Mary lost her balance and fell beneath a wheel of the contraption, breaking her neck and dying instantly. An inquest jury decided no one was to blame.

The impact of this remarkable woman’s life continues to this day. Despite having no formal education, she did more than anyone to popularise astronomy and microscopy in the 19th century. Her drawings were crucial for the recent restoration of the Leviathan at Birr Castle, and her books remain a template for popular scientific writing.

Above all, she broke down barriers in the rigid society of the times. Liberated women of the 21st century have much to thank her for.

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