The First Fatal Car Crash

Mary Ward, a naturalist and astronomer, decided to go for a ride in her cousin’s homemade automobile.

Three people riding in an 1860s Rickets steam carriage.
An 1860s Rickets steam carriage, akin to the car that Mary Ward fell from. (National Motor Museum / Getty)

In August 1869, Mary Ward took a badly needed holiday at her cousin’s castle in the Irish midlands west of Dublin. Ward was an active naturalist and astronomer, working hard to carve out a place for herself in the overwhelmingly male world of Victorian science. She was also raising eight children more or less alone. She needed some rest, and when someone at the castle suggested taking her cousin’s homemade automobile out for a spin, Ward went along.

In the 1860s, automobiles were basically big toys, and when the party set out that day around the town green, death was likely the furthest thing from their minds. But cars were dangerous toys back then, as well, and the group’s little lark—on August 31, 1869, exactly 150 years ago this weekend—ended with Ward being crushed under the car’s wheels. This accident made the 42-year-old scientist the first automobile fatality in history, cutting short what might have been, if not for a demanding home life and one errant turn, an even more remarkable career.

Ward got her start in science early. She began collecting butterflies at age 3, and in 1835, at age 8, she spied Halley’s Comet all by herself through a small telescope, a discovery she later announced to guests at a party. Her family also took collecting trips to peat bogs near her birthplace of Billylin, in the Irish midlands, and cases of insects and dried flowers adorned their walls. Eventually Ward’s father, a pastor who encouraged her interest in science, purchased for her a high-powered microscope for £48 (roughly $4,200 today).

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.

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.

Unfortunately, this love of machinery doomed his cousin. In the late 1860s, Parsons built one of the world’s first automobiles. It was steam-powered and had three thick wheels made of iron to battle the bumpy local roads—one small wheel up front and two large ones in the rear.

In August 1869, when Ward visited her cousin’s castle, someone suggested taking the steam mobile out for a spin, and Ward agreed. There’s no record of who sat where, but four other people piled in as well. The party decided to circle the town green in Birr. According to one witness, the driver was “traveling at an easy pace” as he approached the turnaround point near Saint Brendan’s Church and rounded a corner.

What happened next isn’t clear. Perhaps a wheel hit a rock or a pothole. Perhaps homemade cars in 1869 just didn’t run very smoothly. Regardless, the overcrowded carriage jolted during the turn, and Ward was bucked off. A second later, she hit the ground, and one of the huge iron wheels crushed her.

A local doctor arrived within two minutes, but it was too late. The wheel had broken Ward’s neck and jaw, and she was bleeding from the ears—a sign, the doctor thought, of a skull fracture. Her face was already discolored, and her tongue twitched as she breathed. Within one minute of the doctor’s arrival, she was dead. According to family lore, the car was dismantled and possibly buried under the courtyard of the castle.

Ward’s death was especially poignant considering her family’s fate. A decade later, her husband’s older brother died, and her husband inherited the title of viscount, along with all its trappings. Suddenly the family had money, a fine estate, and servants to help cook and care for the children. Ward would have been free from drudgery at last.

In the years she did have, Ward’s scientific output was impressive enough. Still, had the seating arrangement in the steam car been different that day—and had she lived to enjoy, à la Virginia Woolf, a lab of her own—there’s no telling what Ward might have accomplished. Since her, tens of millions of people have died in motor-vehicle accidents across the globe; few other inventions in history have caused such carnage. But this first death stands out not only for its novelty, but for prematurely snuffing out one of the rare female stars of Victorian science.