Mary King Ward and the life she lived

August 31, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

Mary King Ward is remembered because of the way in which she died. She should be remembered for the way in which she and for the accomplishments she achieved as a 19-century female scientist.

Ward died in 1869, thought to be the first automobile traffic fatality. That fact overshadows the many aspects of her life that are astounding and well worth remembering.

Mary King was born in Ireland in 1827 to a family with some resources but not really a part of the era’s aristocracy. Family members were interested in the burgeoning study of science, and so was Mary. By the time she was three years old, she was collecting insects and butterflies. Her father, a minister, encouraged this interest. When she was eight, she found Haley’s Comet with a small telescope, and when she was 15, her father purchased an extremely expensive microscope.

She showed an exceptional interest in the developing technology of the day as well as in the earth’s natural processes. That interest continued and increased throughout her life. But getting the microscope was the key.

The microscope opened a new world for her, and what it showed her was something she wanted to share. Not many people could look down the scope and see what she saw, so she hit upon a way to show them. She started making drawings, exquisite and detailed, of the flowers and bugs she was seeing. As with the microscope itself, the drawings had a limited audience, so she took the next step. She decided to publish them.

Self publishing wasn’t a term of the early 19th century, but that’s what she did. Her first book, Sketches with a Microscope, was written as letters to a friend describing what she was seeing and was richly illustrated with her drawings. She had 250 copies of it printed and then distributed handbills describing its contents. All 250 copies were sold quickly.

This was in 1857 when she was 30 years old, married (she married in 1854 and became Mary Ward), and the mother of a growing family. Her book was taken over by a London publisher and eventually went through eight editions. Historians give her a lot of credit for popularizing the use of the microscope.

Ward’s cousin, William Parsons who lived a few miles away, had built what was thought to be the world’s largest telescope on his property. Ward helped in the construction and took full advantage of its proximity, spending many hours gazing at the planets and stars and recording what she saw.

Two years later she published Telescope Teachings, a book of her observations with a telescope and filled with her precise drawings. That book, too, was a top seller and got her into the Royal Astronomical Society, and it was displayed at the Crystal Palace international exhibition in 1862.

Meanwhile, Ward was experiencing 11 pregnancies, three of which ended in stillbirth or miscarriages. Six of her eight children survived to adulthood. Ward was the chief caregiver for the children, and because her husband was the second son of a viscount, they had little independent income. The husband wasn’t interested in working, so Ward’s books provided a major source of their income.

Ward did most of her writing and drawing at night after the children had gone to bed. She maintained an active correspondence with a number of scientists of the day, and the physicist David Brewster asked her to illustrate several of his books, including his biography of Sir Isaac Newton.

Ward shared with her cousin Parsons a love of machinery and was always willing to explore many of the wonders of the Industrial Age. Parsons built a large, steam-powered tricycle with heavy steel wheels and room for at least four passengers. In August 1869, Ward joined with others at the estate for a ride into town. Apparently, the vehicle could not negotiate a bump or turn in the road, and Ward was jolted out onto the ground where she was crushed by one of the wheels. Her neck was broken, and she died instantly. She was 42 years old.

Sadly, instead of being remembered as a trail-blazing, talented female scientist, she is remembered as the world’s first automobile fatality. She deserves a better fate.


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