Mary Anning (1799-1847) – “The greatest fossilist ever known”
Despite the fact that Mary Anning’s life has been made the subject of several books and articles, comparatively little is known about her life, and many people are unaware of her contributions to paleontology in its early days as a scientific discipline. How can someone described as ‘the greatest fossilist the world ever knew‘ be so obscure that even many paleontologists are not aware of her contribution? She was a woman in a man’s England.(1)
Mary’s contribution had a major impact at a time when there was little to challenge the biblical interpretation of the story of creation, the genesis flood and the historicity of Noah’s ark. The spectacular marine reptiles that Mary unearthed shook the scientific community into looking at different explanations for changes in the natural world.(2)
Mary Anning’s discoveries were some of the most significant geological finds of all time. She found the first complete Ichthyosaur in 1810-1811 and over the years further sensational finds were made. New, more complete skeletons of ichthyosaurs were discovered, followed by a complete skeleton of the long-necked Plesiosaurus, the ‘sea-dragon’ in 1823. This was followed by the ‘flying-dragon’ Pterodactylus in 1828 and others.(2)
The entire Anning family lived in Lyme Regis, situation on the southern shores of Great Britain and was involved in fossil hunting. Mary’s father, Richard, passed away in 1810 leaving the family in debt without a provider and having learnt the art of identifying fossils from him, Mary showed exceptional skill and dedication producing many remarkable finds and thus providing the fatherless family with a means of income. The fossils that Mary and her family found and prepared were eagerly sought – not only by museums and scientists, but by European nobles, many of whom had substantial private collections of fossils and other “curiosities.” The Annings became legitimate and respected fossilists in the eyes of the scientific community. By the mid-1820’s, Mary had established herself as the keen eye and accomplished anatomist of the family.(1)
In spite of this recognition, the majority of Mary’s finds ended up in museums and personal collections without credit being given to her as the discoverer of the fossils. As time passed, Mary Anning and her family were forgotten by the scientific community and most historians, due to the lack of appropriate documentation of her special skills. Contributing to the oversight of Mary Anning and her contribution to paleontology was her social status and her gender. Many scientists of the day could not believe that a young woman from such a deprived background could possess the knowledge and skills that she seemed to display. For example, in 1824, Lady Harriet Sivester, the widow of the former Recorder of the City of London, wrote in her diary after visiting Mary Anning:
“. . . the extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she has made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong. She fixes the bones on a frame with cement and then makes drawings and has them engraved. . . It is certainly a wonderful instance of divine favour – that this poor, ignorant girl should be so blessed, for by reading and application she has arrived to that degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom.”
Lady Sivester’s praise is high, but note that “divine favour” is invoked to explain how such a woman could possibly be so knowledgeable. It is clear, however, that Anning was not only a collector, but was well-versed in the scientific understanding of what she collected, and won the respect of the scientists of her time. Her discoveries were important in reconstructing the world’s past and the history of its life.(1)
In 1834, the deeply eccentric fossil collector Thomas Hawkins sold to the British Museum a collection of fossil marine reptiles. The biggest and best beast of his collection was his “great sea dragon” (Temnodontosaurus platyodon). But Hawkins didn’t collect the fossil himself; it was collected by Anning. The fossil is on display at the Natural History Museum of London in Kensington. The Sedgwick museum also displays Anning’s portrait next to the Plesiosaur fossils.
Although wealthy fossil collectors often had fossils named after them, Geologists Hugh Torrens and Michael Taylor reported in 1995 that Anning was yet to be commemorated in the name of a British fossil reptile.
Anning’s reputation has gotten similarly mixed treatment from modern science historians. In his 708-page Bursting the Limits of Time, Geology & Paleontology historian Martin Rudwick devotes a sentence to her:
“[A] woman of low social class and little education could become famous for her own collecting activities and make a modest living from such work: Mary Anning of Lyme Regis in southern England was celebrated among a later generation of savants for her skill in discovering the finest specimens of fossil reptiles, though she did not have the expertise to interpret them scientifically.”
But in The Dragon Seekers, Canadian Zoologist Christopher McGowan has high praise for Anning’s interpretive abilities:
“She read everything and anything she could acquire on fossils, even though she was often able only to borrow the original publications. In these instances she frequently copied out the entire article, including illustrations, and there are several examples of these in the archives of London’s Natural History Museum. One in particular so haunted me that I obtained a xerox copy. I have it in front of me as I write, alongside a copy of the original. It is a paper on marine reptiles, written in 1824 by William Conybeare, arguably the brightest geological light in England at that time. There are eight full pages of illustrations, and I am hard-pressed to distinguish the original from the copy. . . . Indeed, Anning was far more than just a collector of fossils. She analyzed her finds, often comparing the anatomies of the fossils with those of their living relatives.”
By the time she died of breast cancer at the age of 47, she had become so well known that Charles Dickens’s journal All the Year Round reported “the carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and deserved to win it.”(3)
Her death in 1847 was recorded by the Geological Society (which did not admit women until 1904) and her life and devotion to the local poor commemorated by a stained glass window in St Michael’s Parish church in Lyme Regis(2) – A remarkable acknowledgement of a woman in a man’s trade who through her finds undermined the biblical theory of the genesis of life.
In his presidential address to the British Society for the History of Science, Hugh Torrens (President, 1990-92) described Mary as being from working class, female, unmarried, solitary and, “a doer, not a writer. Anning published nothing under her own name.”(3) But by the time of her death, Geology was firmly established as its own scientific discipline.(2)
On May 21, 2014, Google commemorated Anning’s 215th birthday with a special doodle.
How many of us recognized the greatest fossilist the world ever knew?
4. Genesis flood – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genesis_flood_narrative
5. Bursting the Limits of Time, Martin Rudwick – http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/B/bo3533976.html
6. The Dragon Seekers, Christopher McGowan – http://www.amazon.com/The-Dragon-Seekers-Extraordinary-Fossilists/dp/0738206733
7. Charles Dickens’s journal, All the Year Round – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_the_Year_Round
8. Feature image – http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/species-of-the-day/collections/our-collections/gryphaea-obliquata/mary-anning/index.html