Mary Ward (1827 – 1869)
Mary Ward was born in Ballylin, near Ferbane, Co. Offaly in April 1827. She belonged to an aristocratic family and had two sisters and one brother. She was a first cousin of the famous astronomer Lord William Rosse and was a frequent visitor to his home at Birr Castle.
As was the norm at that time, Mary Ward and her sisters did not go to school, but were taught by a governess at home. Ward showed an interest in plants and animals from an early age, collecting butterflies at the age of three. Later, she particularly liked looking at specimens
|through a magnifying glass and then drawing them. She was also a keen microscope user, and created beautiful drawings of the plants and animals that she saw. She taught herself to make her own microscope slides from ivory, as glass was not plentiful at that time.
Her parents encouraged her in these activities and with advice from the renowned English astronomer, Sir James South; they bought her a microscope, made by Ross of London. At the time it was probably the finest in Ireland.
When she was growing up, her cousin William Parsons was building (what to become the world's largest telescope for over 50 years) the 58 ft Leviathan Telescope at Birr Castle. Mary Ward was involved in recording its different stages of construction and both her drawings and Mary Rosse's (William's wife) photographs were crucial for the recent restoration of the Leviathan at Birr castle.
In 1854, she married the honourable Henry William Crosbie Ward, of Castle Ward, near Strangford, Co.Down. Over the next 13 years, she gave birth to eight children, two of which died in the following years. This marriage proved to be a one-sided arrangement. Ward was left to raise the large family, and maintain the finances, while Harry continued his varied interests and social activities. For the next few years, the family moved from one rented house to the next, before finally settling for a number of years, near Dun Laoghaire.
The family spent most of their holidays at Castle Ward, where Ward continued to draw and paint studies of the abundant plants and wildlife there. Although libraries and laboratories were closed to women at this time, she still managed to collect articles and books whenever she could. She also wrote many letters to leading scientists, such as William Rowan Hamilton, seeking new information of published work. She illustrated several books and scientific articles by Sir David Brewster, the famous Scottish physicist who invented the Kaleidoscope and who often sent her scientific papers and specimens.
Women could not at this time become a member of any learned societies or obtain any degrees or diplomas. So in 1857, when she decided to make her work public, she found it very difficult to find a publisher who would accept a woman's scientific work. As a result her first book "Sketches with the Microscope" was published privately. However, in the following year it was published by Groomsbridge of London, as "The World of Wonders as revealed by the Microscope", and proved to be very successful, being reprinted eight times between 1858 and 1880.
In 1859, "Telescope teachings" a companion volume, featuring her drawing of the Birr Leviathan on its cover, was published. Her books, simply written, appealed to all. She also published articles in journals like "Recreative Science" and "The Intellectual Observer". In England, she was added to the Royal Astronomical Society's mailing list, one of only three women to have this privilege, the others being Queen Victoria and Mary Sommerville of Oxford College. Two of her books were selected to be displayed at the international exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1862.
On 31st August 1869 while travelling in a steam carriage (invented by her cousin Parsons) with her husband, she was thrown from the carriage when it hit a bump and was crushed by one of the wheels, dying instantly. She became a victim of the world's first automobile accident.
Following her death, her family moved to Castle Ward. Today, her microscope, accessories, slides and books can be found on display in a room dedicated to her in Castle Ward. The early death of this remarkable young woman was tragic. She had surely proved herself as one of the best known 19th century writers on the use of the microscope.