Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Friday, March 9, 2018

Mary Anning, Fossil Hunter

Mary Anning (died 9 March 1847)

Born in 1799 in Lyme Regis, a coastal down in Dorset (England), Mary Anning was the daughter of Richard Anning and Mary Moore. (Of the ten children born to the couple, only Mary and her brother, Joseph, survived to adulthood.)

Mary Anning with her dog, Tray
Richard Anning was a carpenter and cabinetmaker by trade, but in order to supplement the family's income, both Richard and his wife searched for fossils on what is now called the "Jurassic Coast"--the southern coastal cliffs and beaches of England noted for the fossil remains found there. These "curiosities" were sold on to those visiting the area.

Not much is known about Anning's childhood, and she seems to have received little formal education beyond learning to read and write.

But she learned a great deal about fossil-hunting from her family's expeditions, and Anning would later teach herself geology, paleontology, anatomy and scientific illustration.

After Richard Anning's death in 1810, the family's need was dire--at the time of his death, Richard left his two young children and his pregnant wife without means of support beyond charity and fossil-hunting, work which both Mary and her brother undertook. 

Together the siblings discovered the first complete Ichthyosaurus in 1811, with Richard finding what he believed was a crocodile skull and then, several months later, the twelve-year-old Mary finding the remainder of the skeleton. She excavated the entire fossil remains, which were then sold. 

The Annings' discovery "was used as the basis for the first ever scientific paper written about the ichthyosaur, published in 1814 by Everard Home." While the British physician received wide recognition for his work, the contribution of Mary and Joseph Anning was not acknowledged. (Not all of their contacts ignored their contributions, however--in 1821, recognizing the family's continued poverty, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas James Birch, a wealthy collector, auctioned off all the fossil specimens he had purchased from the Annings in order to secure their financial situation.)

By 1816, Joseph Anning began working as an apprentice to an upholsterer, leaving the "family business" of fossil-hunting to Mary. In 1823, she is credited with having discovered the first intact Pleisiosaurus skeleton, and in 1828, she discovered the first British pterosaur specimen, later known as a Pterodactulus. In 1829, she discovered and excavated a Squaloraja, a fossil fish.

Anning's 1824 sketch of a Pleiiosaur

In addition to her discoveries, Anning read (and copied) scientific papers, including their illustrations, carried out dissections, and became an expert anatomist. She was consulted by geologists and paleontologists and made innumerable contributions to the work of men of science--more often than not without acknowledgment or recognition. 

As one of her friends and companions, Anna Pinney, noted, "She says the world has used her ill. . .  . [T]hese men of learning have sucked her brains, and made a great deal of publishing works, of which she furnished the contents, while she derived none of the advantages."

As a woman, Anning could not claim membership in the British Association for the Advancement of Science (founded in 1831) or the Geological Society of London (founded in 1807), but in 1838 members of these scientific associations raised money to provide an annuity for her support.  

Fossil-hunting was both physically taxing and dangerous--Manning was nearly killed by a landslide in 1833 (a disaster that resulted in the death of her "old faithful dog," Tray, who accompanied her on her dangerous excavations). She spent the last years of her life suffering from a variety of illnesses, eventually dying from breast cancer at the age of forty-seven. 

The assessment of her life and work offered by the Lyme Regis Museum, which exhibits some of her fossil finds, provides an excellent insight into her scientific contributions:
Mary Anning’s discoveries were some of the most significant geological finds of all time. They provided evidence that was central to the development of new ideas about the history of the Earth. Her opinions were sought and she was acknowledged as an expert in many areas, including the rather unglamorous coprolites (fossil faeces). She played a key role in informing the work of her learned, male contemporaries, notably William Buckland, Henry de la Beche and William Conybeare. By the time of her death, geology was firmly established as its own scientific discipline.
Mary’s contribution had a major impact at a time when there was little to challenge the biblical interpretation of the story of creation and of the flood. The spectacular marine reptiles that Mary unearthed shook the scientific community into looking at different explanations for changes in the natural world.
And while I usually bitch to anyone who will listen about the deficiencies of the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica when it comes to their treatment of notable women, the EB does contain an entry for Mary Anning. The essay, by John P. Rafferty, concludes, 
After [Mary Anning] died of breast cancer in 1847, the president of the Geological Society eulogized her in his annual address, even though the first women would not be admitted to the organization until 1904. In 2010 she was recognized by the Royal Society as one of the 10 most influential women scientists in British history.
Today there is an excellent account of Mary Anning's life and work at the Natural History Museum in London--which is where I first encountered her!

There are several biographies about Mary Anning, but they all seem to be children's books . . . Sigh.

Anning display at the Natural History Museum, London

Update, 11 April 2021: You may want to listen to this excellent BBC History Extra podcast, "Ammonite and the Real Fossil Hunter, Mary Anning (click here), featuring an interview with archaeologist and writer Rebecca Wrap Sykes. In this broadcast, Ammonite refers to a new film with Kate Winlett in the role of Anning--a romanticized account of the fossil hunters life, but it's a feature film, not a documentary.

In the podcast, Sykes refers to a new biography of Anning, Tom Sharpe's The Fossil Woman: A Life of Mary Anning, which SEEMS to be a biography written for adults. I haven't been able to find it on Amazon, but it is available from the publisher, Dovecote Press, here.

Sykes herself is one of the creators of TrowelBlazers, "a celebration of women archaeologists, palaeontologists and geologists who have been doing awesome work for far longer, and in far greater numbers, than most people realise" (click here).

Update, 26 January 2022: Looking back through this essay today, I decided to check--Tom Sharpe's biography of Mary Anning is now listed on Amazon. The top review (at this moment) identifies it as "a real biography, not a children's book."