Mary Ward (scientist)

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For other people named Mary Ward, see Mary Ward (disambiguation).
Mary Ward

Mary Ward (née King; 27 April 1827 – 31 August 1869) was an Anglo-Irish amateur scientist who was killed when she fell under the wheels of an experimental steam car built by her cousins. As the event occurred in 1869, she was the world's first person known to be killed by a motor vehicle.

Early life[edit]

During the 19th century, when most women had little encouragement for a science education, Mary was unusual. She was born Mary King in present-day Ferbane, County Offaly on 27 April 1827, the youngest child of Henry and Harriett King. 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.[citation needed]


Mary King was a keen stargazer, like her cousin William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse. He was building the Leviathan of Parsonstown, a reflecting telescope with a six-foot mirror which remained the world's largest until 1917. Mary often visited him at his home and, as she was a good artist, sketched each stage of the process. These sketches, along with photographs made by Parson's wife Mary Rosse, were used recently to help restore the telescope.[citation needed]

Mary 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. For Mary, 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.


Universities and most societies would not accept women, but Mary 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, and visits to his London home meant that she met many scientists.

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


On 6 December 1854, Mary 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. 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, 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. She wrote two other books, one of which was a beginner's guide to astronomy, and several articles. She illustrated all her own work and many books and papers by other scientists.[citation needed]


Mary Ward is known as being the first automobile fatality. William Parsons' sons had built a steam-powered car. 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 due to the development of internal combustion engines). Steam cars were heavy and they did too much damage to the already uneven roads. In 1865 the Red Flag Act 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]

On 31 August 1869, she and her husband, Henry, were travelling in it with the Parsons boys: the Hons. Richard Clare 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).[2] She fell under its wheel 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.[1]


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. Her great-granddaughter is actress and author Lalla Ward, known best as Romana in Doctor Who.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Mary Ward 1827–1869". Offaly Historical & Archaeological Society. 2 September 2007. Retrieved 15 January 2014. 
  2. ^ "Appalling Accident: Sudden Death of the Hon. Mrs. Ward". King's County Chronicle. 1 September 1869.  in [1]