Mary Ball

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For the mother of George Washington, see Mary Ball Washington.
Left to Right Robert, Anne, Bent and Mary Ball

Mary Ball (1812–1892) was an Irish naturalist and entomologist[1] most noted for her studies of Odonata and for her discovery of the curious phenomenon of stridulation in aquatic bugs.[2]


The Ball family lived in Youghal, County Cork. Mary had two brothers – Robert and the curiously named Bent – and one sister, Anne, a well-known algologist. The family was Protestant and "involved in trade."

Robert encouraged Mary in her early insect studies, purchasing for her a copy of James Stephens' Systematic Catalogue of British insects, published in 1829.[2] In this she detailed the insects in her growing collection. At this time (1833) Mary began a correspondence with the Belfast naturalist William Thompson. Her insect collection became large for the time and was very well known. Thompson named about twenty species of molluscs and crustaceans in her honour, including a small spiral snail Rissoa balliae in 1856. [3]

One interesting find was a specimen of the migratory locust figured in John Curtis British Entomology- Folio 608 Locusta christii dated 1 August 1836.. "In the cabinets of Miss Ball and the author"- "Another specimen, captured last September at Ardmore in the county of Waterford by Miss M. Ball has been kindly transmitted to me for my inspection by Mr Robert Ball of Dublin. It is of the same sex as the one figured but the elytra are much more spotted".[2]

Mary Ball's Odonata were studied by the Belgian entomologist Michel Edmond de Selys-Longchamps on his visit to Dublin.[4]

After the successive deaths of her father in 1841, her mentor William Thompson in 1852 and her brother Robert in 1857,[4] Mary seems to have given up entomology and taken to fern gardening. A success too: "If Aunt Mary had planted a parasol it would have grown into an umbrella," one of her nephews remarked.

Her entomology collections are now housed in the Natural History Museum in Dublin,[1] and the Zoology Museum in Trinity College, Dublin.[4]


Mary, as was the convention, did not publish her work under her own name. The three known works were all communicated by her brother Robert. They are

  • On the sounds produced by the Notonectidae under water Annals and Magazine of Natural History 16:129.(1846)


  1. ^ a b Mulvihill, Mary (1997). Stars, shells & bluebells: women scientists and pioneers. Dublin: Women in Technology and Science. pp. 41–47. ISBN 0953195309. 
  2. ^ a b c Creese, Mary R.S.; Creese, Thomas M. (2004). Ladies in the Laboratory 2. Oxford: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0810849798. 
  3. ^ Chesney, Helena C.G. "Mary Ball (1812–1898)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 3 November 2014. 
  4. ^ a b c Marilyn Oglivie, Joy Hardy, ed. (2000). "The" Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science. Routledge. ISBN 9780415920384. Retrieved 2012-11-21. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Nash, R. 1983 A brief summary of the development of entomology in Ireland during the years 1790–1870. Irish Naturalists' Journal 21: 145–150