Pioneering scientist and first road traffic fatality Mary Ward remembered

Offaly woman published several scientific books before fatal car crash 150 years ago

Lady Rosse with a copy of Mary Ward’s book. Photograph: Ronan McGreevy

Lady Rosse with a copy of Mary Ward’s book. Photograph: Ronan McGreevy

 

Mary Ward is chiefly remembered as being the unfortunate victim of Ireland’s first fatal road traffic incident, but in her lifetime she was a celebrated scientist and illustrator whose work had an enormous impact on our knowledge of the microscopic world.

The early precursor of the internal combustion engine car was the steam-powered car, but they never became popular because the Victorians were terrified of them.

Four years before her death, the Red Flag Act was passed which set a speed limit of four miles per hour (6 km/h). Moreover, the vehicle had to be accompanied by a man waving a red flag and walking at least 60 paces in front of the car. Such restrictions did not stop the Parsons family from Birr, Co Offaly from designing their own car.

Unfortunately, as their vehicle rounded a bend in Birr on August 31st, 1869, Mrs Ward fell out and was crushed beneath the wheels. She was just 42.

The 150th anniversary of that terrible event was remembered in the grounds of Birr Castle on Saturday, but the occasion was a celebration of her life and work as much as it was a remembrance of her death.

She was blessed with the same spirit of scientific inquiry which compelled her first cousin, the third Earl of Rosse, William Parsons, to build the world’s biggest telescope in the grounds of Birr Castle in the 1840s. Both she and William, as the Parsons family historian, Lady Alison Rosse, put it, had a form of “tunnel vision” eyesight which allowed them to see things others could not see.

While William Parsons astounded the scientific world by publishing sketches of galaxies way beyond our own, most notably the Whirlpool galaxy, Mrs Ward operated at the other end of the natural spectrum.

Microscope

Born in Ballyfin outside Ferbane in Co Offaly in 1827, Mrs Ward’s life was transformed at the age of 18 when she was given her first microscope, and one of the finest instruments for its time.

Her first book on the microscopic world was published in 1858, one of three published in her lifetime. There were many many difficulties for women getting published in the Victorian era and her first book was not published under her own name, but that of “The Hon Mrs W”.

Mrs Ward was a gifted illustrator and her books were reprinted at least eight times between 1858 and 1880.

She had eight children, of whom six lived into adulthood and at the end of her book, The Microscope, she admitted that it was written not in the “delightful employment of abundant leisure, but, on the contrary, as a serious occupation, one amidst interruptions and under pressure of numerous home duties”.

Her short first book, Sketches with the Microscope, has been reproduced with the support of Creative Ireland and Offaly History and with introductions by local historian Michael Byrne and botanist John Feehan.

The book was written in the form of a letter to a friend Emily Filgate and Mrs Ward concludes that “the telescope and microscope teach us different things: but both taken together gives us truly vast ideas of the Creator’s omnipotence”.

Her great-granddaughter Lalla Ward said she wondered if her great-grandmother would have felt less guilty about the time she spent on her books “if she could have known how her own descendent valued both her achievements and her very DNA”.

Speaking at the launch, Lady Rosse said Mrs Ward was a “hands-on mother” who, on once giving birth to a baby girl, wrote in her journal that she immediately needed to revise her paper for a forthcoming publication.

Lady Rosse said it is hoped that Mrs Ward’s journal will be published at a later date.

Sketches with the Microscope is available for €20 from the Offaly History bookshop on Bury Quay, Tullamore or online at offalyhistory.com/shop. Also available from Midland Books, Tullamore, and the gift shop at Birr Castle Gardens and Demesne birrcastle.com.