‘The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself , and has deserved to win it. ’ – Charles Dickens, 1865
220 Years ago on the 21st of May Mary Anning was born. Who? Mary Anning … Most people won’t know her name. But people who collect fossils know Mary as the first female paleontologist who discovered a number of iconic and important prehistoric animals in the cliffs near her hometown of Lyme Regis .
Mary Anning , who was she?
Mary was born on May 21, 1799. She was the fifth child of Molly and Richard Anning. A brother and sister had died in infancy. Her sister Mary, the eldest daughter, had died aged 4 after she was severely burned not long before our Mary’s birth. Mother Molly was already expecting a fifth child at that time and they decided to call this daughter Mary, just like her deceased sister. Five children were born after Mary, all of whom died in their first years. Only Mary and her brother Joseph (1796) survived their childhood at a time when the infant mortality rate was extremely high and had also affected the Anning family with 8 deceased children. It is said that Mary almost died as a little girl. When she was 15 months old she sat on her neighbour’s arm watching an equestrian parade. The tree under which they stood under was hit by lightning. The neighbour and two other women who were also watching were killed instantly, but little Mary survived. This was considered as a great miracle by everyone around her.
Her father Richard was a cabinetmaker and in his spare time he searched for fossils which they then sold from their cottage to the wealthy tourists who had discovered Lyme Regis as a seaside resort. It was a turbulent time in history. The French Revolution was just over and Napoleon seized power in France (1799), crowned himself emperor (1804),and was looking for opportunities to expand its empire. The British were afraid that he would try to invade the country. Holidays to Europe were dangerous, so the people who could afford it chose to have holiday in their own country. Lyme Regis became a popular seaside resort, just like many other places along the south coast.
The Anning family belonged to the ‘Dissenters‘, Protestants who had turned their back on the Anglican church. As a result, they were not allowed to occupy public positions. They lived in a small house right next to the sea. The family did not have much money and the children Mary and Joseph helped their father looking for fossils on the beach to sell for a little extra income. Father Richard worked on his cabinets for customers and mother Molly sold the found fossils on a small stall in front of the house. They called the fossils ‘curios‘ (derived from curiosity ). Small black vertebrae were ‘verteberries‘, ammonites were ‘snake stones’ and belemnites were ‘devil’s fingers’. Gryphea oyster shells were known as ‘Devil’s toenails’.
Father Richard died in 1810 and left a considerable debt to his wife and two children. In 1811, Joseph made a remarkable find. In the cliffs he found a skull belonging to an unknown animal. This was at a time when the idea that the earth is millions of years old was not generally accepted and most people believed the age of the earth to be as given in the Bible. But geology and paleontology was an emerging branch of science and a number of men were very interested in the strange bones and stones that the Anning family found in Lyme Regis. 11 Year old Mary found the rest of the skeleton a few months later. It turned appeared to be an Ichtyosaurus. A sea reptile that in appearance is often compared to the current dolphins (but was absolutely not related to it). The complete skeleton was purchased for £23 by a wealthy gentleman who resold the fossil to the naturalist and collector William Bullock in London. In 1819, it was purchased by the British Museum, described as Ichthyosaurus (Temnodontosaurus platyodon), fish-like lizard. More bones from this prehistoric animal had been found in the past, but these were described incorrectly as being fish bones , crocodile bones, or bones from people drowned during the deluge. The skeleton found by the Annings was the first complete skeleton.
The family had financial difficulties. A collector who had bought many beautiful items from the Annings for his collection could not just sit back and decided to organize an auction to help mother Molly and the children. He announced it in newspapers and wrote to museums and collectors in his own country and in Europe to let them know that this auction would take place. Among them was Dr Gideon Mantell, the man who discovered the Iguanodon. Birch, the person who organized the auction, had shown many of his special items to Mantell and told him that almost all of them came from the Anning family. The auction was a great success and attracted buyers from home and abroad. The final proceeds were around £400,-. Whether the family received this amount is unclear, but from that moment their worries about having enough money passed. It also ensured that the international collector world (which was a rich group of people at the time) got to know their name as fossil sellers and led to more and a richer clientele.
According to some, Mary was the inspiration for the famous tongue twister ‘She sells seashells on the seashore. The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure. So if she sells seashells on the seashore. Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells. ‘ Nice poem , but there aren’t any sources that say that it really was about her.
Because of his work as an upholsterer, Joseph could not spend so much time looking for fossils anymore. But Mary kept searching and combed the beach at Lyme Regis every day looking for treasures in the company of her dog Tray. Winter was the best time to collect because it was quiet on the beaches and the rain, frost and wind caused more rocks to break off the cliffs. This was dangerous work. Collapsing cliffs could cause tons of rock and clay to come down all of a sudden without any warning. In a letter to a friend, Mary described how she barely escaped being buried alive by a cliff fall. Her dog was less lucky and got buried under the rocks. Mary was deeply saddened by the loss of her loyal friend.
Financial problems continued to haunt her. In 1826, Mary bought a place to start her own real fossil shop. Many fossil collectors from all over Europe knew where to find her. Until times became really difficult and the economic situation throughout the country deteriorated considerably. Less customers and no considerable finds left her with nothing to pay her bills. People whom she had met through the fossil business, important and influential gentlemen from the scientific world, helped her by selling prints of a painting from the prehistoric Jurassic world based on her finds and by demanding that because of her contributions to science she should in fact be entitled to receive an annual payment from the organization with a society that had as a goal to enable and fund science, the BSA (British Science Associantion).
Mary and science
Her role in the scientific world was something that really bothered her. Mary made several very important discoveries in her life that considerably increased the knowledge about life in the Jurassic and the knowledge of prehistoric sea reptiles. And it wasn’t just about finding fossils. She also gained a lot of knowledge about the things she found. She made reconstructions, drawings and descriptions of the skeletons and read professional papers about paleontology, geology and biology. In addition to the Ichtyosaurus, she also found the first complete skeleton of a Plesiosaurus (Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus), important fish fossils (Dapedium politum, Squaloraja polyspondyla) and the first Pterosaurus (Dimorphodon macronyx) from Great Britain. She compared her fossil finds with recent animals that she dissected and found out that belemnites were prehistoric squids that also had an ink sack, just like their modern equivalent. Some scientists saw her as one of the people with the most knowledge of Jurassic fossils in England. She was friends with Henry de la Beche, knew Richard Owen, William Buckland, William Conybeare, Roderick Murchinson, Charles Lyell and Louis Agazzis . All of them well-known names, founders of geology and paleontology in Great Britain and Europe. And they respected her knowledge and skills. But unfortunately, Mary was a woman and did not have the right religion. Those two things meant that she had no place in the scientific world. She was not allowed to become a member of the Geological Society and she could not publish any articles in the scientific papers of that time. This does not mean that her observations and discoveries did not find their way to science. Just not with her name on it. She corresponded with various men who were concerned with paleontology and in this way she did have an influence on paleontology. But she rarely received any credits for this. Her name was not mentioned most of the time by the people who could publish in scientific papers. She left the Dissenters church and decided to become a member of the Anglican church. Some of her scientific contacts were clergy within this Anglican church. But she was still a woman and therefore she was excluded from an actual place in the scientific world.
Mary became ill in 1846. She had breast cancer and died on March 9, 1847 at the age of 47. She was buried in the cemetery at St Michael’s Church, where her grave can still be visited.
Nowadays Mary Anning gets more and more the recognition she deserves. Various fossils are named after her, including a Plesiosaurus, Anningasaura lymense , and an Ichtyosaurus, Ichthyosaurus anningae. Lyme Regis is the town of Mary Anning. The place where she was born, lived, found all her fossils, died and is buried. And that is why Mary deserves a statue in Lyme Regis. As a tribute to her and to all women who, like her, can or could not do what they are good at, just because they are women. This is what 11-year-old Evie thought. During a fossil hunt on the beach of Lyme Regis, she wondered why there was no statue for Mary Anning. Together with her mother Anya she decided to start a campaign to erect a statue for Mary Anning. Supported by great names As Sir David Attenborough , Jack Horner, Dean Lomax and Alice Roberts, they raise money to actually design and place this statue. If you want to support this great initiative, take a look at their website www.maryanningrocks.co.uk. The T-shirts they sell are amazing!
Do you want to learn more about Mary and her discoveries in the Lias cliffs of Lyme Regis? Then a visit to the Jurassic Coast is great fun. Lyme Regis is a town that is all about fossils. In the Lyme Regis Museum (Philpot museum), built on the spot where Mary Anning’s house once stood, is a beautiful exhibition about her and her discoveries. In London, at the Natural History Museum, you can see some of Mary’s fossils, including her first Ichtyosaurus, the one she and Joseph found. These can be admired in the famous ‘Jurassic Gallery’ in the museum. There are also been many books about Mary, but the most beautiful one in my opinion is ‘Remarkable Creatures’ by Tracy Chevalier.