On Mary King Ward, 19th-Century Celebrity Scientist
(Who Also Happens to be the First Person to Die From a Car Accident)
Often cited as the first person ever to die in a car accident, Mary King Ward was also one of the first successful female science popularizers, mixing religion, science, and entrepreneurial savvy to reach her 19th-century English audience from her home base of Ireland. In her well-received science writing about microscopes, telescopes, frogs, and bugs, Ward appealed to the “wonder of nature’s clocks,” describing them as having been built by a divine hand even as she offered earthbound, accurate scientific information for an eager audience. An adept and observant artist, she included in her publications her own illustrations of the microscopic to the astronomic: the intricate webbing of an insect wing, haunting images of the moon phases, and real-time observations of a comet. Accessing and doing science in the only way women could—concealed behind technology and writing for a younger audience with a religious flourish—Ward also worked with some of the leading (male) researchers of the day and published with them.
As a woman born in Ireland in 1827, Ward’s options for learning were limited. Although her family was aristocracy-adjacent, she struggled against obstacles that to this day keep women constrained from scientific pursuits, doing emotional labor behind the scenes, and juggling all the duties of home life in parallel. But she also gained access to knowledge through newly available technology and enjoyed authentic mentoring from men, facilitating her significant success. She made it as a best-selling science writer because of her intellectual rigor and because she knew exactly how to navigate through the elusive opening for women who wanted to engage in science and writing.
Her success was so notable that she broke two glass ceilings that constrained women of her time. In 1859, one of her mentors, Irish mathematician Sir William Rowan Hamilton, asked for her name to be added to the Royal Astronomical Society’s subscription list. Lest the import of her successful addition to this list be missed, only two other women of the British Isles shared the honor at that time: Mary Somerville, famed for her skill as a mathematician and astronomer, and Queen Victoria of England.
Ward also gained entry in 1862 to The Royal Observatory at Greenwich, England. As the fellow charged with guarding the gates of the observatory from feminine invasion noted, “there were stringent rules against the admission of any lady” but the case of “the Honourable Mrs Ward is so exceptional” that she was allowed to pass through the hallowed portal. Ward herself wrote about the experience when it was over: “We took our leave of the observatory… feeling much pleased by our exceptional case.” The italics were hers—she was not above being snarky. Before she married her husband, Henry William Crosby Ward, her future mother-in-law wrote (italics hers) to a friend about her son’s engagement to “Miss Mary King—a most independent young woman but very pleasant . . .”
In fact, from her early days, Ward showed both a strong interest in scientific pursuits and a strong independent streak. She needed both to achieve what she did in her brief 42 years. Women of her status could not move about freely—indeed, when she was in her mid-twenties and wanted to attend the funeral of a child, she had to create a detailed plan and formally approach her father by appointment in his study (men had a room of their own; women did not) to gain his permission. Her formal education was just as constraining. Her only brother was prepared throughout his childhood for his eventual matriculation at Trinity College Dublin, but Ward and her two sisters were intended to find contentment in more homey pursuits and reading the Bible.
That didn’t stop them from chasing bugs and books, slipping away with volumes from the family library, and tucking into the many newspapers and periodicals that arrived like clockwork in the home. Ward built up her own personal library throughout her childhood, with a heavy emphasis on books about microscopy, astronomy, and zoology that presaged her own works a few years later.
The books obviously were excellent tools, but technology is what breathed life into Mary King Ward’s pursuits. Early on, she started taking up every new technology that emerged from microscopes to telescopes, even building her own and personally documenting assembly of the “Leviathan,” one of the world’s largest at the time. The giant thing was built over the course of several years on the estate of her cousin, William Parsons, the third Earl of Rosse. He was an avid astronomer, and his wife, also Mary, was quite close with Mary Ward, a few years her junior. The two Marys must have made quite an unusual pair, as Mary Rosse was adept at blacksmithing and Mary Ward had gained expertise in everything from fireworks manufacture to building her own, small version of a telescope from a kit ordered from London at the recommendation of a scientific friend.
That small telescope became the two inches of ivory that Mary Ward used to build her publishing career. For her microscopy, she literally used slivers of ivory to create her meticulously documented and stored slides of the insects and flora that she examined and sketched. The upshot of these adventures was her first book, which after a few titular iterations ultimately was entitled Microscope Teachings. Before she even sought to publish the book, though, she tested the enthusiasm for such material among friends and family. Finding considerable interest from acquaintances from all walks of life—a housemaid, stunned by what the microscope could reveal, exclaimed, “Oh, Miss M, it makes me want to shout!”—Ward turned to the tools of her day to self-publish her work.
Creating the lithographed plates herself and having them colored in Dublin, she had 250 copies of her illustrated microscopy book printed. She then turned to marketing, drawing up an advertisement and offering the book for sale. The appetite for the book—which instructed readers in using a microscope and gave them beautiful glimpses of what they might see—was sufficient that this first print run sold out. Ward was embarking with the same gentle but effective style that gained her entry into the Greenwich observatory to negotiate with a London publisher when a family member preempted her. This brother-in-law brokered a deal without discussing it with her, selling copyright to her book for 15 pounds. Ward was put out, writing to a friend that the officious brother-in-law “had no commission about it from me—in fact, I am scheming with another publisher.”
The deed done, however, an undaunted Ward still managed to get the publisher to send her 100 copies for herself, which she promptly sold to the people on the waitlist for her work. The book was a bestseller and went through several editions, publishing with success until 1888. Her next book, Telescope Teachings, was published in 1859, produced during late nights after family duties had ended, while she was pregnant with her fifth child. As with the microscopy book, Telescope Teachings began by instructing the reader in assembling a small personal telescope before expanding to striking illustrations of everything from the phases of the moon to images of Donati’s comet, which Mary had tracked during 1858. She even gave the reader instructions in how to view the sun—and look at sunspots—without endangering the eyes.
She garnered rave reviews from London critics, with the London Standard calling her “an indefatigable student of the minor beauties and wonders of nature” and “an accomplished writer and skillful artist.” Entomology in Sport, Entomology in Earnest, a book that Mary wrote and illustrated with one of her sisters, was intended for young readers and is very much on the lighter side. Yet it also drew an enthusiastic reception, advertised as “offering an agreeable bait in the form of a pleasing and fanciful narration, by which unwary youths may find themselves caught in the meshes of Science, while only seeking amusement.” She also wrote a book on the unexpected topic of the “Natterjack toad” of Ireland, again illustrating it herself. The famous naturalist Sir Richard Owen was so taken with her toad illustration that he requested a copy of it to place in the British Museum collection.
One reason Mary Ward managed this success despite the cultural disdain for women who lifted a hand to work or made a pretense at intellect was her tightrope performance of femininity and rigorous thinking. Surviving photographs of her, taken by her friend Mary Rosse, show a woman in all the trappings of Victorian lady attire, bundled and concealed in yards of silk, all the lines sloping from hair to shoulders to hips in true Victorian fashion. In one image, she’s in profile, the clothes looking strangely loose, so as not to confine her too much. She looks away from the lens, as though wishing she were somewhere else. The image gives a slight sense of exasperation in hands that are curled, not relaxed, in her lap, as though anxious to get on with it, perhaps grasp a microscope or a pen.
Her intellectual rigor seems to have been one of her greatest weapons, fracturing the armor of many a leading male scientific light of her era and turning them into her personal knights errant. They seemed to genuinely respond to her clear, intelligent, authentic interest in astronomy, microscopy, and biology, so much so that the famed Scottish scientist David Brewster engaged her to illustrate several of his scientific papers and even his biography of Sir Isaac Newton. He was just one of many such allies and patrons who sent Mary the scientific publications and other information that she craved, in turn sometimes engaging her to participate in publications of their own.
One reason for her access to these minds was her cousin, William Parsons, the Earl of Rosse. His high-society scientific connections meant that Ward periodically could travel to London and gain entrée to the best intellectual salons of the day. She once met William Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair, at a party where he seems to have snubbed her after their introduction. She wrote to a friend that she found it much easier to engage with scientific “lions” than literary “lions” because she could at least demonstrate to the scientists that her interest was authentic.
Also authentic was Ward’s devout belief in a Christian god. It’s quite likely that the reception of books by a woman might not have been quite so warm had she not given a nod to the Divine Creator she believed in so profoundly. In her book on microscopy, which Ward positions as an epistolary exchange with a friend, she moves from a detailed and lyrical description of a magnified insect wing into a panegyric on what she calls “God’s creation!,” quoting the philosopher Boyle about finding Nature’s watches—small things—more wondrous than its clocks, and exclaiming, “So wonderful are the minuter parts of God’s creation!” Her enthusiasm is genuine, and it also was a necessary accouterment for a woman of her ambition to succeed in publishing.
Although Mary was born adjacent to and married into the Irish aristocracy, her family was not well off and experienced increasingly straitened circumstances, even as she endured 11 pregnancies and bore eight children. Her husband appears to have just dawdled around living the life of the aimless gentry, so Ward wrote and illustrated and published to keep income flowing. Despite their connections, he was the second son of an earl who would be leaving the entailed estate to the first son.
After Mary’s aristocratic cousin William, Earl of Rosse, died, she made a pilgrimage to his estate, Birr Castle, to visit his tomb. His sons, who would go on themselves to become inventors and scientists, were only teenagers at the time, but they had built a machine, a steam-driven car that could reach speed of up to about 7 mph. On August 31, 1869, Mary King Ward was on a ride in this steam-powered carriage with her teenage cousins, their tutor, and her husband, when the machine tumbled while making an “easy turn.” The contraption tilted sideways, a sudden motion that threw Ward under the wheels, which crushed her. She died almost instantly, becoming the first person ever killed in an automobile accident. She was 42.
The morning of her death, Ward had just written to her publisher to say that she didn’t want to reprint her Telescope Teachings book. Her reason: in the decade since its first printing, it had become “altogether behind the present state of the subject—I am desirous it should be a useful book and in no-wise out of date for 1870.”