22. Mary Anning
If you went down to the blue lias cliffs at Lyme Regis in Dorset on a freezing winter day in the 1820s or 1830s, you might have seen a thoroughly bundled-up figure scratching in the shale and examining the stones. A scientific gentleman of the Royal Society, making important discoveries about fossils that would later lead to, among other things, the development of the theory of evolution?
You’d actually be looking at Mary Anning, a working-class woman from a religiously-dissenting family who wouldn’t have been allowed to scrub the front steps of the Royal Society — and a damn fine scientist nonetheless.
Anning’s family were Congregationalists, members of an unpopular religious minority. They lived in the village of Lyme, so close to the sea that their house flooded in bad weather, and they were pretty damn poor. Her father, Richard Anning, was a carpenter who supplemented his income by picking up and mining interesting stones — then called ‘curios’, later to be known as ‘fossils’ — from the beach and selling them to tourists (who initially bought them because they were weird or pretty, not for any scientific interest).
Anning and her brother Joseph (the only two of the family’s ten children to live to adulthood) helped their father at this work. After he died in 1810, 11-year-old Mary and 14-year-old Joseph (and their mother, Molly) all continued to work at fossil-collecting in order to keep their family afloat. In 1811, when Anning was twelve years old, they discovered what would later be identified as the first complete icthyosaur skeleton — Joseph dug up the skull, and a few months later, Mary found the rest of the skeleton. They sold the find to Henry Henley, a local aristocrat, who sold it on to collector William Bullock who displayed it in London — causing people to begin to ask serious questions about the Biblical account of Creation.
Anning continued to work as a fossil-hunter into adulthood, eventually opening her own shop in Lyme in 1826, ‘Anning’s Fossil Depot’. It wasn’t particularly safe or easy work, either - in 1833, Anning was caught in a landslide that nearly killed her (and did, unfortunately, kill her dog Tray, pictured in a sketch above).
Despite the fact that she had had limited access to schooling (she learned basic reading and writing at Congregationalist Sunday School), Anning was deadly serious about educating herself as a scientist. She read as many scientific journals and publications as she could get hold of. She conducted dissections of modern animals in order to better understand the fossil ones she was researching, and made careful copies of diagrams and illustrations that she found in books. Among many other discoveries, she also uncovered the first plesiosaur and the first British example of a pterosaur: her notes were also key to the discovery that coprolite stones were in fact fossilized animal dung (a discovery for which scientist William Buckland ended up getting most of the credit).
As interest in the new sciences of geology and palaeontology grew, Anning was not permitted to join the Royal Society, nor the Royal Geological Society. This effectively meant that she could not be recognised as the maker of any scientific discoveries, as she had no means to publish her work. Many of the wealthy fossil collectors who bought items from her published Society papers on their purchases: some of them appear to have ripped off her descriptions of the fossils wholesale and passed them off as their own. A friend of Anning’s, Anna Pinney, wrote:
She says the world has used her ill … these 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.
And damn right, too! Although those ‘in the know’ do seem to have recognised the value of Anning’s work to some extent, collecting a subscription to pay her medical bills and making her a member of the new Dorset County Museum, she still doesn’t appear to have got anything near the scientific credit she deserved. In 1847, she died of breast cancer — and the President of the Geological Society spoke at her funeral (why yes, that was the same society that wouldn’t let her join while she was alive). The eulogy was published in the Society’s quarterly transactions, an honour that no other woman would receive until the Society began accepting female members in 1904.
Anning has received much greater recognition after her death, and is a relatively famous figure nowadays — there are a number of fictional novels and kids’ books about her, and her story is even reputed to be the basis for the tongue twister ‘She sells seashells…’. The third image above is a display that now hangs in the Natural History Museum in London showing information about her life beside a plesiosaur skeleton. However, I think it’s important to remember not only her discoveries, but the sheer effort of will that it must have required for a person of her gender and class and religious background to have been taken even as seriously as she was by the scientific community during her lifetime. Surviving and thriving as an academic from a working-class background isn’t all that easy in 2012… and yet nearly 200 years earlier, Anning was doing it despite some pretty terrifying odds. It’s also, of course, important to remember how little credit she got for it, and how her findings were misappropriated by her so-called superiors — which is, of course, what happens when some people are forcibly barred from taking part in academic discourse.
Somehow, a museum plaque and a tongue-twister still don’t seem like enough to make up for that.
Bio at the Natural History Museum: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/science-of-natural-history/biographies/mary-anning/index.html
Bio at Lyme Regis Museum: http://www.lymeregismuseum.co.uk/in-the-museum/mary-anning
Essay by William Sargeant, ‘The Three Mary Annings’: http://www.whaton.uwaterloo.ca/waton/s008.html
BBC primary-school kids’ page with images and a game: http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/primaryhistory/famouspeople/mary_anning/
Bio from San Diego ‘Women in Science’ series: http://www.sdsc.edu/ScienceWomen/anning.html
Wikipedia biography: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Anning
Images from the ‘Literary Lyme’ walking tour: http://www.literarylyme.co.uk/maryanninggallery.html
I did a report on Mary Anning my freshman year of high school. I had to dress up as her and everything. She was so badass.