Microscopes were expensive and fairly exotic instruments then; before that point, Ward had used weak magnifying glasses instead. The microscope opened a whole new world to her, and she began enthusiastically studying the fine details of flora and fauna, from bat hair and the scaly wings of moths to cricket and cod eyes that she dissected herself and peeled layer by layer.
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This research with the microscope formed the basis of Ward’s first book, which she both wrote and illustrated. Sketches With the Microscope (later titled A World of Wonders Revealed by the Microscope) took the form of a series of letters to her friend Emily Filgate, offering close anatomical analysis of bugs and practical advice on using the instrument. The book went through eight editions, and its combination of accessible scientific explanations and lavish drawings, according to one historian, “did as much to make the microscope popular as any other book of the time.”
Ward’s second book, Entomology for Sport, was more lighthearted. It was based on a long poem Ward and her sister Jane had written in their teens, and it included both precise drawings and bits of whimsy, such as a picture of bugs dancing around a floral maypole.
Ward kept at astronomy, as well. In Telescope Teachings, she used her artistic skills to produce stunning pictures of heavenly bodies, some of the finest of the era. She also published studies on comets and the transit of Venus, and earned the honor of being one of just three women allowed to receive the monthly bulletin of the Royal Astronomical Society (along with Queen Victoria and the American astronomer Maria Mitchell).
Establishing herself as part of the scientific community was not easy. As a woman, Ward was barred from a university education and membership in professional scientific societies, the usual routes to recognition. Even her widely read first book was printed privately at first, apparently due to the belief that no one would publish a scientific book by a woman. (A London publishing house later snapped it up.) Ward’s success is a testament to her perseverance.
Perhaps most amazing of all, Ward did all this work while managing 11 pregnancies (including one stillbirth and two miscarriages) in 13 years of marriage. Her husband—the younger brother of a viscount—was an army captain, but after retiring from the service, he became a gentleman of leisure and never worked. Ward mostly had to care for her children alone, since she couldn’t afford help. And as her husband’s inheritance dwindled, the family squeezed into a series of dilapidated rental properties. Productive as Ward was, science was always competing with domestic duties.
Her lack of time and money had to be even more galling considering that one of Ward’s cousins, William Parsons, the third earl of Rosse, spent lavishly on his own research. Parsons’s castle at Birr, roughly 10 miles from Ward’s birthplace, boasted the world’s largest telescope in the second half of the 19th century. Nicknamed the “Leviathan of Birr,” it stretched 50 feet long, and its six-foot-wide mirror weighed four tons. (Jules Verne mentioned it in his novel From the Earth to the Moon.) Parsons also embraced the heavy machinery of the Industrial Revolution, and wary visitors remembered furnaces belching black smoke as they approached his castle.