Mary Ward (scientist)

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Mary Ward
Mary Ward by microscope.jpg
Mary King

27 April 1827
DiedAugust 31, 1869(1869-08-31) (aged 42)
  • naturalist
  • astronomer
  • microscopist
  • author
  • artist
FamilyWilliam Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse (cousin)

Mary Ward (née King; 27 April 1827 – 31 August 1869) was an Irish naturalist, astronomer, microscopist, author, and artist.[1] She was killed when she fell under the wheels of an experimental steam car built by her cousins. As the event occurred in 1869, she is the first person known to have been killed by a motor vehicle.[2][note 1]

Early life[edit]

She was born Mary King in Ballylin near present-day Ferbane, County Offaly, on 27 April 1827, the youngest child of the Reverend Henry King and his wife Harriette.[3] She and her sisters were educated at home, as were most girls at the time. However, her education was slightly different from the norm because she was of a renowned scientific family. She was interested in nature from an early age, and by the time she was three years old she was collecting insects.[4]


Ward was a keen amateur astronomer, sharing this interest with her cousin William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse. Parsons built the Leviathan of Parsonstown, a reflecting telescope with a six-foot mirror which remained the world's largest until 1917. Ward was a frequent visitor to Birr Castle, producing sketches of each stage of the process. Along with photographs made by Parson's wife Mary Rosse, Ward's sketches were used to aid in the restoration of the telescope.[5]

Ward also drew insects, and the astronomer James South observed her doing so one day. She was using a magnifying glass to see the tiny details, and her drawing so impressed him that he immediately persuaded her father to buy her a microscope. A compound microscope made by Andrew Ross (model 112) was purchased for £48 12s 8d.[6][7] This was the beginning of a lifelong passion. She began to read everything she could find about microscopy, and taught herself until she had an expert knowledge. She made her own slides from slivers of ivory, as glass was difficult to obtain, and prepared her own specimens. The physicist David Brewster asked her to make his microscope specimens, and used her drawings in many of his books and articles.[4]


Universities and most societies would not accept women, but Ward obtained information any way she could. She wrote frequently to scientists, asking them about papers they had published. During 1848, Parsons was made president of the Royal Society. Parsons, to recall, was Ward's cousin and visits to his London home meant that she met many scientists.[4]

She was one of only three women on the mailing list for the Royal Astronomical Society (the others were Queen Victoria and Mary Somerville, a scientist for whom Somerville College at Oxford University was named).


On 6 December 1854, she married Henry Ward of Castle Ward, County Down, who in 1881 succeeded to the title of Viscount Bangor. They had three sons and five daughters, including Maxwell Ward, 6th Viscount Bangor.[2] Her best-known descendants are her grandson Edward Ward, the foreign correspondent and seventh viscount, and his daughter, the Doctor Who actress Lalla Ward.


When Ward wrote her first book, Sketches with the microscope (privately printed in 1857), she apparently believed that no one would print it because of her gender or lack of academic credentials. She published 250 copies of it privately, and several hundred handbills were distributed to advertise it. The printing sold during the next few weeks, and this was enough to make a London publisher take the risk and contract for future publication. The book was reprinted eight times between 1858 and 1880 as A World of Wonders Revealed by the Microscope. A new full-colour facsimile edition at €20 was published in September 2019 by the Offaly Historical and Archaeological Society, with accompanying essays. (ISBN 978-1-909822-14-6).

Her books are: A Windfall for the Microscope (1856), A World of Wonders, Revealed by the Microscope (1857), Entomology in Sport, and Entomology in Earnest (1857, with Lady Jane Mahon), Microscope Teachings (1864), Telescope Teachings (1859). She illustrated her books and articles herself, as well as many books and papers by other scientists.[4]


Ward is the first known automobile fatality. William Parsons' sons had built a steam-powered car;[note 2] on 31 August 1869, she and her husband, Henry, were travelling in it with the Parsons boys (the Hons Richard Clere Parsons and the future steam turbine pioneer Charles Algernon Parsons) and their tutor, Richard Biggs. She was thrown from the car on a bend in the road at Parsonstown (present-day Birr, County Offaly).[8] She fell under its wheels and died almost instantly. A doctor who lived near the scene arrived within moments, and found her cut, bruised, and bleeding from the ears. The fatal injury was a broken neck.[2] It is believed that the grieving family destroyed the car after the crash.[6]


Ward's microscope, accessories, slides and books are on display in her husband's home, Castle Ward, County Down. William Parsons' home at Birr Castle, County Offaly, is also open to the public.[4]

Her great-granddaughter is the English actress and author Lalla Ward.[9]

See also[edit]

  • Bridget Driscoll – (born in Ireland, 1851/1852–1896) first pedestrian death by automobile in Great Britain
  • Henry H. Bliss – (1830–1899) first automobile death in the Americas

Further reading[edit]

  • The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Volume IV, Irish Women's Writing and Traditions, p. 653, edited by Angela Bourke et al., NYU Press, 2002. The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing – a short biography and an overview of further work.
  • A Pair of New Eyes, a play by A. L. Mentxaka, deals with the life of Mary Ward and her friendship with the pioneer photographer, designer, and architect Mary Rosse (née Field). – the play was premiered at the Sean O'Casey Theatre Dublin on 5 November 2013. A second production was staged in Smock Alley Theatre Dublin in August 2014.
  • Article in August bank holiday 2019 edition of the Irish Examiner Did you know


  1. ^ Although some sources assert Mary Ward to be the first person killed by a motor vehicle, a steam carriage fatal accident in July 1834 preceded Ward's demise. In the 1834 event, a steam carriage constructed by John Scott Russell and operating a public transport service between Glasgow and Paisley overturned, causing a boiler explosion which killed four or five passengers and injured others. Russell's carriage comprised a steam engine pulling a combined passenger and fuel tender; Mary Ward's accident may be characterised as the first fatality involving a vehicle in the form of a contemporary motorcar, in which the engine is mounted and passengers ride on the same frame.
  2. ^ It was thought at the time that steam transport would be developed greatly during the near future (this was true for trains, but did not in fact become true for cars until the development of internal combustion engines). Steam cars were heavy and they did too much damage to the already uneven roads. The Locomotives Act 1865 imposed a speed limit of four miles per hour for the countryside and two miles per hour in towns. This effectively ended the popularity of motorcars, but some enthusiasts still had one, often homemade, like the Parsons' vehicle.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Turner, Gerard L'Estrange (2004). "Ward [née King], Mary [pseud. the Hon. Mrs Ward] (1827–1869), microscopist and author". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/38818. Retrieved 9 March 2017. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. ^ a b c d "Mary Ward 1827–1869". Offaly Historical & Archaeological Society. 2 September 2007. Archived from the original on 16 January 2014. Retrieved 15 January 2014.
  3. ^ McKenna Lawlor, Susan (2013). Whatever Shines Should be Observed: [quicquid nitet notandum]. Springer. p. 19.
  4. ^ a b c d e "Mary Ward (1827–1869)". Irish Universities Promoting Science. University Science. Archived from the original on 16 April 2005. Retrieved 9 March 2017.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  5. ^ "Mary Ward Illustrations Exhibition". Ireland 2016. Archived from the original on 12 March 2017. Retrieved 9 March 2017.
  6. ^ a b Fallon, Isabelle; O’Neill, Desmond (2005). "The world's first automobile fatality". Accident Analysis & Prevention. 37 (4): 601–603. doi:10.1016/j.aap.2005.02.002. PMID 15949449.
  7. ^ Harry, Owen G. (1984). "The Hon. Mrs Ward (1827-1869) Artist, Naturalist, Astronomer and Ireland's First Lady of the Microscope". The Irish Naturalists' Journal. 21 (5): 193–200. ISSN 0021-1311. JSTOR 25538785.
  8. ^ "Appalling Accident: Sudden Death of the Hon. Mrs. Ward". King's County Chronicle. 1 September 1869. in [2]
  9. ^ "Mary Ward, the first person to be killed in a car accident – 31 August 1869" – via British Newspaper Archive.

External links[edit]