“Women have won their political independence; now is the time for them to achieve their economic freedom too.” Rachel Parsons

Mary Ward

Mary Ward
Mary Ward

Mary Ward (née King), a cousin and neighbour of William Parsons, third Earl of Rosse, was a self-taught expert in natural history and microscopy. She made beautiful drawings of insects, plants, etc., seen through the microscope, the foundation of several bestselling books. In 1869, at the age of 47, Mary Ward become the first known fatal victim of a motor-vehicle accident. The experimental steam car in which she was travelling had been built by William Rosse’s sons and was driven by 15-year-old Charles Parsons – but this was kept secret for many years.

Although she became well known as an artist, naturalist, astronomer and microscopist, Mary Ward never received any formal marks of distinction – reflecting the virtual impossibility at the time for women to achieve recognition in the scientific field. Educated at home like the Parsons children, but deriving huge intellectual benefit from her association with Birr Castle, Mary was the first woman to write a book about the microscope. First published in London in 1858, with colour illustrations by the author, A World of Wonders Revealed by the Microscope was reprinted several times and became a bestseller. Mary went on to write more books and numerous articles on scientific subjects, which she illustrated herself with exquisite drawings and paintings – a torrent of creativity that she somehow managed to reconcile with performing the duties of a wife and mother of eight children.

More importantly, from William Rosse’s point of view, Mary Ward used her artistic talents to sketch each stage of the construction of the Leviathan of Parsonstown, providing an invaluable record for contemporary and future astronomers. One of her books was a popular guide to astronomy, in which she explained from her own experience how to get the most from a small telescope, what to look for and where. When working with microscopes, she made her own slides from slivers of ivory, prepared her own specimens and drew what she saw in near-photographic detail.

William Rosse held his cousin in the highest regard and kept in close touch with her throughout his life. During his presidency of the Royal Society (1848–54), Rosse would regularly invite her to dinner parties at his London home, where she would meet all the leading scientists of the day – but sometimes it was his young cousin who emerged as the expert. One one occasion when he was unable to answer the query of an eminent guest, Lord Rosse replied, ‘My cousin Mary knows rather more than I do on that subject. I recommend that you address your question to her.’