On This Day 27.4.1827 Birth of Mary Ward




What do the aristocratic amateur scientist Mary King Ward, and the working class Irishwoman, domiciled in London, Bridget Driscoll, have in common? The answer has something to do with the manner of their deaths, which took place twenty-seven years apart.

Mary King Ward was born in 1827 in Ferbane, Co. Offaly, then known as King’s County. The fact that her maiden name was King was a mere coincidence, though her extended family did own quite a lot of the county. She was home educated to a very high level by a family obsessed with the sciences.

Mary King was the cousin of William Parsons, Third Earl of Rosse, the man responsible for the building of the huge telescope ‘Leviathan’ in Birr Castle in the mid-nineteenth century. At the time of its construction it was the largest in the world. Mary shared her cousin’s interest in astronomy, but she was also an accomplished artist. Her sketches of ‘Leviathan’ were used long after her death in the restoration of the telescope. She was also fascinated by the other end of the ‘scope’ scale as well. She was obsessed with microscopes.

She was, of course, born into the wrong era. Half a century later, and she might have been able to study physics or biology at university. But Mary King had to rely on the scraps that fell from her association with Parsons. Through him she met, and later corresponded with, a number of scientists. She published her first book, Sketches with the microscope, privately, reckoning that no publishing house would accept a scientific work by a woman. It did so well that it was taken on board by a London publisher, and was reprinted eight times between 1858 and 1880. Before her death, in 1869, she wrote and illustrated numerous other scientific books and articles.

And that is how she would be remembered today, as a gifted amateur scientist born years before a time when she might have gained more recognition,  were it not for the manner of her tragic and untimely death at the age of forty-two.

William Parsons, inveterate inventor and tinkerer, had built a steam-driven car. They were briefly popular but were huge, impractical and dangerous. They went into decline when speed limits of—wait for it—four miles an hour on country roads  and two miles an hour in cities, were imposed. Never again complain about the extension of the thirty-kilometre an hour speed limit in Dublin city centre. On 31 August 1869 Mary Ward was travelling in the Birr Castle steam-powered car with two of Parsons children, and her own husband, when she was thrown from the vehicle on a nasty bend, and killed almost instantly when the wheels of the car broke her neck. She thus became the first recorded fatal victim of a traffic accident anywhere in the world.

So where does her fellow countrywoman Bridget Driscoll come in? She was only forty-four years of age when she met a not dissimilar fate in the grounds of the Crystal Palace in London in 1896. She was crossing a road with her daughter Mary, when she was struck by a car that was being used to give demonstration rides. She thus became the first pedestrian death by automobile in the United Kingdom. One witness described the car, owned by the Anglo-French Motor Carriage Company, as being driven at a reckless speed, ‘in fact, like a fire engine’. The car’s maximum speed, however, was only eight miles an hour, so it cannot have been travelling that fast. The verdict of a coroner’s jury was one of ‘accidental death’ and no prosecution followed the tragedy. The coroner expressed the hope that ‘no such thing would ever happen again’—that was around six hundred thousand British road fatalities ago. Mary Ward had three sons and five daughters. Her great grand-daughter, the actor Lalla Ward, was once a regular on Doctor Who. Bridget Driscoll was a mother of three, two boys, and the daughter who witnessed her tragic and unnecessary death.

Mary King Ward, astronomer, biologist, author, and the very first of many millions of traffic fatalities in automobile history, was born one hundred and ninety-one years ago, on this day.