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.
Mary Anning was born in 1799 to Richard and Mary Anning of Lyme Regis, situated on the southern shores of Great Britain. The cliffs at Lyme Regis were--and still are-- rich in spectacular fossils from the seas of the Jurassic period. Richard and Mary had as many as ten children, but only two of these children, Mary and Joseph, reached maturity. Richard was a cabinetmaker and occasional fossil collector. Unfortunately, Richard died in 1810, leaving his family in debt without a provider. He did, however, pass on his fossil hunting skills to his wife and children, which later proved fortuitous for the fledgling field of paleontology.
The Anning family lived in poverty and anonymity, selling fossils from Lyme Regis, until the early 1820s, when the profesional fossil collector Lt.-Col. Thomas Birch came to know the family and sympathized with their desperate financial situation. Birch decided to hold an auction to sell off all of his fine fossil collection and donate the proceeds to the Anning family. He felt that the Annings should not live in such "considerable difficulty" considering that they have "found almost all the fine things, which have been submitted to scientific investigation...". Up to this point mother Mary was running the business end of fossil collecting. By the middle of the 1820s, daughter Mary had established herself as the keen eye and accomplished anatomist of the family, and began taking charge of the family fossil business. Joseph was, by this time, committed to a career in the upholstery business, and no longer collected fossils.
Mary Anning has been credited with the first discovery of ichthyosaur fossils. Although this is not entirely true, she did help to discover the first specimen of an Ichthyosaurus to be known by the scientific community of London. This specimen was probably discovered sometime between 1809 and 1811, when Mary was only 10 to 12 years old. And while Mary did find the majority of the remains, her brother had discovered part of the beast twelve months earlier. In fact, the entire Anning family was involved in fossil hunting, but Mary's skill and dedication produced many remarkable finds and thus provided 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."
Mary made many great discoveries, including the aforementioned ichthyosaur and several other fine ichthyosaur skeletons. But perhaps her most important find, from a scientific point of view, was her discovery of the first plesiosaur. The famous French anatomist, Georges Cuvier, doubted the validity of the specimen when he first examined a detailed drawing. Once Cuvier realized that this was a genuine find, the Annings became legitimate and respected fossilists in the eyes of the scientific community.
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 posses 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.
Anonymous (1828), Another discovery by Mary Anning of Lyme. An unrivalled specimen of Dapedium politum an antediluvian fish, 108:5599, Salisbury and Winchester Journal, p. 2
Cadbury, Deborah (2000), The Dinosaur Hunters: A True Story of Scientific Rivalry and the Discovery of the Prehistoric World, Fourth Estate, ISBN978-1-85702-963-5
Carus, C.G. (1846), The King of Saxony's journey through England and Scotland in the year 1844, Chapman and Hall
Conybeare, William (1824), On the Discovery of an almost perfect Skeleton of the Plesiosaurus, Geological Society of London
De la Beche, Henry; Conybeare, William (1821), Notice of the discovery of a new Fossil Animal, forming a link between the Ichthyosaurus and Crocodile, together -with general remarks on the Osteology of the Ichthyosaurus, Geological Society of London.
Dean, Dennis R. (1999), "Gideon Mantell and the Discovery of Dinosaurs", Gideon Mantell and the Discovery of DinosaursISBN978-0-521-42048-8
Dickens, Charles (February 1865), Mary Anning, the Fossil Finder, 13, All Year Round
Emling, Shelley (2009), The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman whose Discoveries Changed the World, Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN978-0-230-61156-6
Goodhue, Thomas W. (2002), Curious Bones: Mary Anning and the Birth of Paleontology (Great Scientists), Morgan Reynolds, ISBN978-1-883846-93-0
Goodhue, Thomas W. (2004), Fossil Hunter: The Life and Times of Mary Anning (1799–1847), Academica Press LLC, ISBN978-1-930901-55-1
Gordon, Elizabeth Oak (1894), The life and correspondence of William Buckland, D.D., F.R.S, John Murray
Grant, Johnson (1825), A Memoir of Miss Frances Augusta Bell, Hatchard & Son
Home, Everard (1814), "Some Account of the Fossil Remains of an Animal More Nearly Allied to Fishes Than Any of the Other Classes of Animals", Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 104: 571–577.
Home, Everard (1819), "Reasons for Giving the Name Proteo-Saurus to the Fossil Skeleton Which Has Been Described", Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 109: 212–216.
Howe, S. R.; Sharpe, T.; Torrens, H. S. (1981), Ichthyosaurs: a history of fossil 'sea-dragons', National Museum Wales, ISBN978-0-7200-0232-4 McGowan, Christopher (2001), The Dragon Seekers, Persus Publishing, ISBN978-0-7382-0282-2
Rudwick, Martin J.S. (1992), Scenes from Deep Time: Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World, The University of Chicago Press, ISBN978-0-226-73105-6
Rudwick, Martin J.S. (2008), Worlds Before Adam: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Reform, The University of Chicago Press, ISBN978-0-226-73128-5
Sharpe, T.; McCartney, Paul J. (1998), The Papers of H.T. De la Beche (1796–1855) in the National Museum of Wales, National Museum Wales, ISBN978-0-7200-0454-0
Torrens, Hugh (1995), "Mary Anning (1799–1847) of Lyme; 'The Greatest Fossilist the World Ever Knew'", The British Journal for the History of Science, 25 (3): 257–284, doi:10.1017/S0007087400033161, JSTOR4027645
Torrens, Hugh (2008), "Anning, Mary (1799–1847)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online Edition.
de la Beche: MARY ANNING
• Anholt, Laurence (2006), Stone Girl Bone Girl: The Story of Mary Anning, Frances Lincoln Publishers, ISBN 978-1-84507-700-6
• Atkins, Jeannine (1999), Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon, Farrar Straus Giroux, ISBN 978-0-374-34840-3
• Brown, Don (2003), Rare Treasure: Mary Anning and Her Remarkable Discoveries, Houghton Mifflin Co, ISBN 978-0-618-31081-4
• Chevalier, Tracy (2010), Remarkable Creatures, Penguin, ISBN 978-0-45229-672-5
• Cole, Sheila (2005), The Dragon in the Cliff: A Novel Based on the Life of Mary Anning, iUniverse.com, ISBN 978-0-595-35074-2
• Day, Marie (1995), Dragon in the Rocks: A Story Based on the Childhood of the Early Paleontologist, Mary Anning, Maple Tree Press, ISBN 978-1-895688-38-2
• Fradin, Dennis B. (1997), Mary Anning: The Fossil Hunter (Remarkable Children), Silver Burdett Press, ISBN 978-0-382-39487-4
• Gayrard-Valy, Yvette (1 March 1994), Fossils: Evidence of Vanished Worlds, "Abrams Discoveries" series, Harry N. Abrams Inc, ISBN 978-0-8109-2824-4
• Goodhue, Thomas W (2005), "Mary Anning: the fossilist as exegete", Endeavour, 29 (1), pp. 28–32, doi:10.1016/j.endeavour.2004.11.004, PMID 15749150
• Norman, DB (1999), "Mary Anning and her times: the discovery of British palaeontology (1820–1850)", Trends Ecol. Evol. (published November 1999), 14 (11), pp. 420–421, doi:10.1016/S0169-5347(99)01700-0, PMID 10511714
• Pierce, Patricia (2006), Jurassic Mary: Mary Anning and the Primeval Monsters, Sutton Publishing, ISBN 978-0-7509-4039-9
• Proffitt, Pamela (1999). Notable women scientists. Detroit: Gale Group. ISBN 9780787639006.
• Tickell, Crispin (1996), Mary Anning of Lyme Regis, Lyme Regis Philpot Museum, ISBN 978-0-9527662-0-9
• Walker, Sally M. (2000), Mary Anning: Fossil Hunter (On My Own Biographies (Hardcover)), Carolrhoda Books, ISBN 978-1-57505-425-4
Plesiosaur found by Mary Anning; NATURAL HISTORY MUSUM, London, UK
As a woman, Anning was an outsider to the scientific community. At the time in Britain women were not allowed to vote, hold public office, or attend university. The newly formed, but increasingly influential Geological Society of London did not allow women to become members, or even to attend meetings as guests. The only occupations generally open to working-class women were farm labour, domestic service, and work in the newly opening factories.
Although Anning knew more about fossils and geology than many of the wealthy fossilists to whom she sold, it was always the gentlemen geologists who published the scientific descriptions of the specimens she found, often neglecting to mention her name. She became resentful of this. Anna Pinney, a young woman who sometimes accompanied Anning while she collected, 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." Torrens writes that these slights to Anning were part of a larger pattern of ignoring the contributions of working-class people in early 19th-century scientific literature. Often a fossil would be found by a quarryman, construction worker, or road worker who would sell it to a wealthy collector, and it was the latter who was credited if the find was of scientific interest.
Along with purchasing specimens, many geologists visited her to collect fossils or discuss anatomy and classification. Henry De la Beche and Anning became friends as teenagers following his move to Lyme, and he, Mary, and sometimes Mary's brother Joseph, went fossil-hunting together. De la Beche and Anning kept in touch as he became one of Britain's leading geologists. William Buckland, who lectured on geology at the University of Oxford, often visited Lyme on his Christmas vacations and was frequently seen hunting for fossils with Anning. It was to him she made what would prove to be the scientifically important suggestion that the strange conical objects known as bezoar stones, were really the fossilised faeces of ichthyosaurs or plesiosaurs. Buckland would name the objects coprolites. In 1839 Buckland, Conybeare, and Richard Owen visited Lyme together so that Anning could lead them all on a fossil-collecting excursion.
She also assisted Thomas Hawkins with his efforts to collect ichthyosaur fossils at Lyme in the 1830s. She was aware of his penchant to "enhance" the fossils he collected. She wrote: "he is such an enthusiast that he makes things as he imagines they ought to be; and not as they are really found...". A few years later there was a public scandal when it was discovered that Hawkins had inserted fake bones to make some ichthyosaur skeletons seem more complete, and later sold them to the government for the British Museum's collection without the appraisers knowing about the additions.
The Swiss palaeontologist Louis Agassiz visited Lyme Regis in 1834 and worked with Anning to obtain and study fish fossils found in the region. He was so impressed by her and her friend Elizabeth Philpot that he wrote in his journal: "Miss Philpot and Mary Anning have been able to show me with utter certainty which are the icthyodorulites dorsal fins of sharks that correspond to different types." He thanked both of them for their help in his book, Studies of Fossil Fish.
Another leading British geologist, Roderick Murchison, did some of his first field work in southwest England, including Lyme, accompanied by his wife, Charlotte. Murchison wrote that they decided Charlotte should stay behind in Lyme for a few weeks to "become a good practical fossilist, by working with the celebrated Mary Anning of that place...". Charlotte and Anning became lifelong friends and correspondents. Charlotte, who travelled widely and met many prominent geologists through her work with her husband, helped Anning build her network of customers throughout Europe, and Anning stayed with the Murchisons when she visited London in 1829.
Gideon Mantell, discoverer of the dinosaur Iguanodon, also visited her at her shop.
Anning's correspondents included Charles Lyell, who wrote to her to ask her opinion on how the sea was affecting the coastal cliffs around Lyme, as well as Adam Sedgwick—one of her earliest customers—who taught geology at the University of Cambridge and who numbered Charles Darwin among his students.
"She sells seashells" was turned into a popular song in 1908, with words by British songwriter Terry Sullivan and music by Harry Gifford. It was made famous through performances and a recording by Billy Murray.
According to folk etymology, it was said to be inspired by the life and work of Mary Anning, an early fossil collector. However, there is no factual basis for this claim, especially since the expression predates Anning's life. Regardless, over time the song and its tongue-twisting lyrics became associated with Anning and made her career a curiosity for many people who would have otherwise never heard of her.