March is both Irish-American Heritage Month and Women's History Month. So it seems a good time for a story about an Irish woman. In this post, we take a look at the life of Mary King Ward of Co. Offaly.
From the tiniest creatures to the far reaches of the universe, Mary King Ward’s scientific curiosity led her to explore and document what she discovered through both the microscope and the telescope. Despite her short lifespan and the limited opportunities available to women in the 1800s, she accomplished some remarkable things.
Born in County Offaly in 1827 to an Anglo-Irish family, Mary soon caught her relatives’ zeal for science. At the tender age of three she was already collecting and examining insects and butterflies. Since girls were not sent to school in those days, Mary and her sisters were educated at home by a governess and encouraged by their parents to explore scientific subjects.
By the time she was 18, Mary was adept at illustrating with her drawing and painting skills the tiniest details of the creatures she studied. When the eminent British astronomer James South visited her parents, he saw her staring through a magnifying glass to perfect her sketches. So South suggested to Mary’s father that he give her a microscope. He did that, and Mary continued to expand her collection of illustrations. She contributed several drawings to books published by Sir David Brewster, the Scottish academic who among many other accomplishments invented the kaleidoscope.
In 1854, when Mary was 27, she married Henry Ward of Castle Ward in County Down. Over the next 13 years she bore eight children and continued to study, write and draw.
In 1857 no publishers would consider a scientific book written by a woman. So Mary self-published her first book on microscopy at a local print shop. All 250 copies of Sketches with the Microscope sold in a few weeks. The next year a London publisher accepted the book and published it under the title The World of Wonders as Revealed by the Microscope. It sold so well that it was reprinted eight times between 1858 and 1880.
Mary’s cousin William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse, had been working on building what would become until 1917 the largest telescope in the world. With a six-foot mirror, it was called the Leviathan of Birr Castle. From the world of the very small, Mary expanded her studies to the vast universe making illustrations of the telescope itself and of what she saw in it. Inspired by this new subject, she wrote and published Telescope Teachings in 1859.
When plans to restore the historic telescope began in the 1990s, Mary’s drawings were instrumental because the original plans had been lost. You can still see the restored telescope at Birr Castle today.
Tragically, Mary was to gain another distinction on August 31, 1869. While riding on a steam-powered car designed and built by her cousins from Birr Castle, she was thrown under its wheels when the car turned a corner. She was the first person in the world killed by an automobile. She was only 42 and left behind her eight young children.
You may also like to read about Lilian Bland, an early Irish aviator.
The Craobh Dugan blog is written by Sue Romero. Questions? Corrections? Send them on to her at firstname.lastname@example.org