I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Poverty stalked the Anning family after the patriarch, Richard, fell to his death from a cliff top. This happened in 1810, near the community of Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast of southern England. In order to help the family’s meagre finances, 11-year-old Mary Anning started collecting fossils and shells she found on the beach under the cliffs that claimed her father’s life.
The Dorset Coast
Lyme Regis, where Mary Anning was born in 1799, is a coastal town situated in what is sometimes called the “Jurassic Coast.” The cliffs on either side of the town were formed during the Lower Jurassic; that was between 201 and 174 million years ago.
There are layers of clay, limestone, and sandstone, making for an unstable mixture. The rocks were laid down when the area was covered by a tropical sea.
During wet, winter months, landslides are quite common; this means that fossils, locked in the cliffs for tens of millions of years suddenly appear on the beaches below.
This was Mary Anning’s hunting ground.
Tourists Go to Lyme Regis
At the end of the 18th century, France was convulsed by its revolutionary wars so the English upper classes looked for somewhere safer to spend their holidays.
Lyme Regis was one of those places and the local population was eager to help them spend their money. One way of relieving the rich of troublesome excess wealth was to sell them trinkets found on the beach. So, local people combed the area looking for fossils.
Mary Anning’s father had been one such fossil hunter and he taught his daughter the trade. As noted, she started fossil hunting before she was a teenager and her earnings were important to her family that otherwise had to rely on charity.
More than a Fossil Hunter
While others were content to find and sell what the locals called verteberries (vertebrae) and snake stones (ammonites), Mary Anning educated herself about the fossilized bones she was finding.
She was a woman blessed with a sharp mind and boundless curiosity. With virtually no formal education she became a leading authority on dinosaurs whose fossils kept turning up on the beaches near Lyme Regis. She read everything she could get her hands surrounding the science of geology.
The first big find came in 1811. Mary’s brother Joseph found the skull of an ichthyosaurus, a sea creature looking somewhat like a dolphin. A few months later, Mary Anning found the rest of the skeleton. It was the first complete ichthyosaurus ever found.
More discoveries followed.
The San Diego Supercomputer Center has a web page dedicated to Women in Science. It notes that Mary Anning “also discovered the first nearly complete example of the Plesiosaurus; the first British Pterodactylus macronyx, a fossil flying reptile; the Squaloraja fossil fish, a transitional link between sharks and rays; and finally the Plesiosaurus macrocephalus.”
Praise for Mary Anning
Soon, Mary Anning’s finds and her body of knowledge about dinosaurs brought attention higher up the scientific food chain. At the time, geology was the preserve of titled gentlemen some of whom would have looked down their aristocratic noses at this working-class, rural woman. But, her skill and reputation became harder and harder to ignore.
Lady Harriet Silvester visited Mary Anning in 1824 and noted in her diary, “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 ... 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.”
Others, of an enlightened and less condescending nature, saw the value of Anning’s work, but she was still kept at arm’s length from the scientific community.
Resistance to Mary Anning
Those who deemed themselves to be scientists in Victorian Britain found it hard to acknowledge that a woman could be more skilled than men. Writing for The Conversation, Adrian Currie notes that “Most contemporary descriptions of Anning expressed surprise that a woman could be so knowledgeable, often with the implication that such knowledge in the ‘fairer sex’ is threatening.” As a woman, she was not allowed to join the Geological Society, nor even to attend its lectures.
Strike one; she was a woman. Strike two; she was working class.
She made her living by selling her fossil discoveries. To the dominant upper class of Victorian society this sullied her status; “How could anybody engaged in the grubby business of trade be taken seriously as an objective scientist?”
And, strike three, her findings challenged the prevailing teaching of the Church of England. God created the Earth in six days, said the church, and this happened only a few thousand years ago. The existence of dinosaur fossils many millions of years old was awkward.
In the 1830s, the economy turned grim and the fossil collecting trade fell into decline and with it the Anning family income. There were those in the scientific community who recognized the value of her contributions and set up an annuity to support her. Even the Geological Society chipped in.
In the late 1840s, poor health overtook Mary Anning and she died in 1847 of breast cancer.
In a precipitously speedy move, 163 years after her death, the Royal Society put Mary Anning on its list of the ten British women to have made the most influential contributions to science.
Mary Anning was one of ten children born to Molly and Richard Anning. But such were the living conditions of the time that only two survived into adulthood.
In 1908, a song appeared in Britain that was written by Terry Sullivan for a pantomime about Dick Whittington. Among its lyrics are:
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.
There are many claims that the song refers to Mary Anning, but there is no factual evidence to back this up.
- “The Jurassic Coast of Lyme Regis.” Richard Edmonds, lymeregis.com, undated.
- “Mary Anning.” San Diego Supercomputer Center, undated.
- “Mary Anning (1799-1847).” The Geological Society, 2012.
- “Mary Anning: How a Poor, Victorian Woman Became One of the World’s Greatest Palaeontologists” Adrian Currie, The Conversation, November 2, 2018.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor
Ann Carr from SW England on January 09, 2020:
I had heard of Mary Anning and I know that coastline a little as I live in Somerset, the county north of Dorset. She must have been determined to stand up to the thoughts of her times regarding women trading, but then she was driven by need.
That coastline is spectacular and still a favourite tourist destination. The dangers of landslip are only too real; now and then we see examples on the news, fortunately rarely fatal. How exciting to find a rare fossil in the disturbed soil!
Thank you for an enjoyable read.