Frances Bailey is our Lead Curator for Northern Ireland. One of her favourite objects in the collections she helps care for is the 19th-century microscope Mary Ward of Castle Ward was given as a teenager. Not only does it remind her of her own childhood gift, but the microscope had a profound influence on Mary and her future achievements, as Frances explains.
An inspirational gift
On my 13th birthday, my parents gave me a microscope. It came in an orange cardboard box, with glass slides and three lenses. I remember my fascination looking through it at a fly’s wing, flakes of skin and the cells of a leaf. It was only a simple microscope but even with its low magnification I was entranced by these extraordinary visions.
Ninety years before I was born, 18-year-old Mary King had been similarly entranced by a birthday microscope given by her father. Mary’s splendid top-of-the-range brass model came in a mahogany box. It was made by Andrew Ross, the leading maker of microscopes and lenses in London at the time. Sir James South, founding member of the Astronomical Society of London and a family friend, had suggested the gift to her father after he saw her studying insects with a magnifying glass.
Born in 1827, Mary was the daughter of the enlightened Rev. Henry King of Ballylin in the Irish midlands, and both her parents had encouraged her early interest in the natural world. The study of science ran in the family. Her cousin, the Earl of Rosse, was an avid engineer and astronomer and in the 1840s he built the world’s largest reflecting telescope (72 inches in diameter), dubbed ‘Leviathan’.
Mary made more focused use of her microscope than I did of mine. I went on to become a curator, a job which enables me to explore the beauties of human creativity, only occasionally through a lens. Mary’s microscope went everywhere with her as she spent her life studying the natural world.
She became a highly skilled scientific illustrator and writer of books for children and adults, including 'A World of Wonders Revealed by the Microscope' (1858) and 'Telescope Teachings' (1859). Her books are full of practical tips to show how even simple lenses can be used to help reveal the excitements of the natural world.
Her accurately observed and elegant illustrations were commissioned by several leading scientists to grace their latest scientific publications, including Sir David Brewster FRS of the Royal Society of Edinburgh for his acclaimed biography of Isaac Newton (1855).
Her own beautifully illustrated books were on subjects as diverse as toads of Ireland and the transit of Mercury in 1861, and she corresponded with many of the leading scientists of the day.
So highly regarded was she that Mary became one of only three women to receive the Transactions of the Royal Astronomical Society, which included transcripts of learned papers read at the Society meetings. Mary was also given special dispensation to visit the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, in 1862 – a time when women were strictly prohibited.
Mary’s family life
When she was 27, Mary married Henry Ward, the younger son of Viscount Bangor of Castle Ward. In 1881, Henry succeeded as 5th Viscount Bangor, but he had very little income and during their married life they and their growing family were accommodated by relations.
Alongside the many books that she wrote, Mary also kept a diary. The pages record the hurly-burly of family life and expeditions to explore the wildlife of Strangford Lough and Castle Ward, where they stayed for some weeks each year.
Her tragic early death
Visiting Birr Castle in 1869, Mary and her relations climbed onto a steam-powered road engine, built by her cousins, to go for a run into the village. A sudden turn, a pothole in the road, and Mary fell beneath the wheels of the vehicle and was killed. She was just 42.
If Mary had not died at such an early age, what more might she have done to promote the teaching of science, the love of the natural world and to establish women as worthy members of the scientific community?
Mary Ward’s story and her microscope and drawings, on show at Castle Ward this year, inspire me to look at our natural world with a renewed sense of wonder.
" Mary Ward’s story and her microscope and drawings ... inspire me to look at our natural world with a renewed sense of wonder."
This blog is adapted from 'An object I love' by Frances Bailey which appeared in the spring 2020 issue of the National Trust Magazine.