Saturday, June 11, 2005


Yet Another Occupational Hazard for Authors

A New Scientist history column by Stephanie Pain uncovers an odd bit of authorial lore that I'd never heard of before. Turns out the first automotive fatality was a bestselling author:

On 31 August 1869, Mary Ward and her husband were travelling along a quiet Irish road in a steam-driven car when it suddenly jolted, pitching Mary under one of its heavy iron wheels. She died almost instantly in what many believe was the first fatal automobile accident.... The fatal injury, said the doctor, was a broken neck. The death certificate records the cause of death as "Accidental fall from a steam engine. Sudden." The family was so distraught, they broke up the offending object and buried it.

But, as Stephanie points out, there's more to Ward's life than the manner in which she left it. She was one of the great microsope artists of the 19th century, working for the likes of Sir David Brewster -- whose 1831 book Letters on Natural Magic, incidentally, counted Edgar Allan Poe among its fans, and is still great fun for lovers of weird science. In time Ward became an author herself, and her self-published Sketches With The Microscope became a Victorian bestseller when it was reissued under the title A World of Wonders Revealed By The Microscope. (Check out its gorgeous cover art here at Cambridge's Whipple Library.)

I see that the Offaly Historical & Archeological Society also has a page devoted to the unfortunate Ms. Ward, including "Appalling Accident: Sudden Death of the Hon. Mrs. Ward," the text of the September 1, 1869 King's County Chronicle report of the accident and its inquest.

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