Ward, Mary

Mary Ward (1827 – 1869)

Microscopist and Artist

Mary Ward (née King) was born in Ferbane, Co. Offaly. She was a first cousin of William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse, of Birr telescope fame and through whom she met many of the most eminent men of science of the day. As a young girl she was interested in natural history and astronomy and for her 18th birthday was given a fine 50-piece microscope. With this, she examined the fine structure of everything from feathers to tadpole jaws and insect eyes.

She married Captain Henry Ward in 1854 and had a family of eight. Captain Ward had resigned his army commission and had no regular income. To augment the meagre income from her dowry, Mary turned to writing and illustrating science books. She compensated for her lack of formal education and access to a science library by collecting articles where she could and (using her connections with Birr Castle ) by corresponding with scientists.

Her many talents, in particular her descriptions of organisms, won the respect of scientists at a time when women had little access to higher education and learned societies, and were not accepted as authors.   She was critical of existing books on microscopy and thus in 1857 wrote her own, Sketches with the Microscope, re-published in 1858 as The World of Wonders Revealed by the Microscope.   This went to five editions and was in a popular engaging style, describing how anyone could use a microscope to study the natural world.    Her second book, Telescope Teachings (1859), was prompted by the Birr telescope and was equally successful.

Her books were shown at the 1862 Crystal Palace exhibition. She wrote for publications such as The Intellectual Observer and Recreative Science. She was an exceptionally fine artist and painter, and illustrated the works of many other scientists, particularly those of the Scottish astronomer Sir David Brewster, whom she first met at Birr.

Mary Ward died tragically in 1869. She was the world’s first automobile fatality when she was thrown from a steam carriage at Birr. Some of her instruments and notebooks are exhibited in Castle Ward (her husband’s birthplace near Strangford, Co Down) and one of her microscopes can be seen in Birr Castle museum.

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