For most people, being the first to do something is all the achievement they'll ever need. My cousin Carl, for example, claimed he was the first person to masturbate while eating a taco, and it was on the strength of this triumph that he was almost accepted to a community college. Other people, however, can have a lifetime of achievement overshadowed by one particular act at which they happened to be first.
Mary Ward was one of these people. An extraordinary woman who, in 1869, had the bad luck to be the first person killed by a car.
Mary Ward was born Mary King to a very respected scientific family — her cousin, William Parsons, was the man who built a telescope that was the world's largest until 1917. Mary was a gifted artist, and had a fondness for drawing insects, which she would render in such detail that she used a magnifying glass. An astronomer friend of her father noticed her work, and convinced her dad that this kid needed a microscope, pronto. Her dad got one for her, and where her cousin shone in the observations of the infinite, she soon excelled at studying the very, very finite.
She loved microscopy, and made her own slides from ivory. Since most Universities of the time wouldn't take women, she wrote directly to scientists and eventually became one of the only women to be on the mailing list for the newsletter of the Royal Astronomical Society. Seeing the need for a well-illustrated book on microscopy, she wrote and illustrated her own, publishing the first 250 copies herself. After selling out, a London publishing house published the book, which was reprinted up to 1880.
Let's just pause a moment to get all the extraordinary context here. Universities wouldn't take women at this time. Everything she learned, she did either on her own, or by personal correspondance with scientists. She published her book herself (at first) because she had no credentials and was a woman, two big strikes against a hopeful academe of the time. This lady knew a crapton about science, but apparently had no idea what "quit" meant.
Being from a family of scientists, it's not too surprising that her second cousins were tinkerers, and had built a very early steam-powered automobile in 1869. Mary seems like the kind of girl who's curious about everything, so it's not surprising she went with the Parson boys on a quick joyride in the steam car.
Steam cars of that era were crude, heavy (14+ tons was not uncommon), cumbersome things, especially a home-built one like the Parsons had constructed. During the trip, it seems the car took a turn too quickly, pitching Mary out of the vehicle and under its wheels. Its heavy, iron-rimmed wheels.
Mary was killed instantly, dead of a broken neck. While somebody had to be the first, it seems a special shame that a woman who would have been remembered for her art and science is now known primarily as the first car accident victim.
That, and, apparently, as the great-grandmother of the woman who played Romana on Doctor Who.