Mary Ward fell beneath the wheel of a steam-driven car (Image: NC)
Mary Ward’s life ended suddenly and shockingly on a quiet country road on August 31, 1869. Fearful Death of a Lady, ran the headline in the local newspaper. The manner of her demise 150 years ago earned her a macabre place in the annals of motoring as the victim of the world's first fatal car accident. But Mary deserves to be remembered for more than her violent end, because she was as unusual in life as she was in death - a talented and tenacious woman who broke through glass ceilings in a man's world with breathtaking success.
Born Mary King in 1827, the Irish clergyman's daughter had a blissful childhood near Ferbane in County Offaly. Fascinated by nature, she collected butterflies and other insects at the age of three. As she grew older, she took to examining specimens through her father's magnifying glass and drawing them in near-photographic detail.
It was an era when women were not expected to have any scientific ability and received little education beyond the domestic sciences. They were usually ostracised from the scientific community. Libraries and laboratories were closed to women, and Irish universities accepted few female students.
Mary had no formal schooling and was taught to read and write by a governess. She was fortunate in that her enlightened, well-to-do parents encouraged her interests. A visiting scientist who saw her examining insects under the magnifying glass was so impressed that he persuaded her father to buy her the best microscope that money could buy. She used it to further her studies of plants and animals, teaching herself to make her own microscope slides from ivory, since glass was not plentiful. In the stream near her home she caught minnows and tadpoles, placing them below what she called the microscope's "magic tube" before releasing them into the water.
In her quest for knowledge, she also benefited from being a first cousin of renowned astronomer William Parsons, the third Earl of Rosse, who lived 12 miles away at Birr Castle. During Mary's teenage years, Rosse began building what was to become the world's largest telescope for the next 70 years - the 58ft Leviathan. Mary was fascinated by her cousin's creation, using it not only to study the night sky herself, but sketching each stage of its construction. She was one of the first to climb up to the Leviathan's gantries and galleries, and later told how she "more than once stood in bitter frost long after midnight" to view the heavens. Her knowledge of astronomy soon rivalled that of Lord Rosse himself. When he became President of the Royal Society in 1848, he regularly invited her to dinner parties. On one occasion, when he was unable to answer a visitor's query, he replied: "My cousin Mary knows rather more than I do on that subject. I recommend that you address your question to her."