International Women's Day 2013 - Celebrating the life of Mary Anning

I'm sorry to be so late in posting this, busy day! But I couldn't collapse into bed before celebrating International Women's Day 2013!

This year, I'm dedicating this post to the wonderful Mary Anning, 'the fossil woman', for her sheer grit, determination and legacy to the world of Science and Natural History.

Mary Anning (1799 - 1847) shaped the course of Paleontology when she was just 11, when she uncovered a complete Ichthyosaur skeleton in the the Blue Lias rocks of Charmouth Beach. She is thought to be the first person to discover complete Ichthyosaur and Plesiosaur skeletons, and her findings are still studied by scientists today (head to the Natural History Museum!). Fossil hunting became her lifelong passion, and she became a successful collecter and dealer in her field. Her work contributed to the scientific thinking developments of the time, involving prehistoric life and the history of the Earth itself.

It's accepted that Annings gender and social class prevented her from fully participating in the 19th century scientific community, which was naturally dominated by wealthy gentlemen. Being a working-class woman made her quite the alien of the scientific community as of course at the time, women didn't have the right to vote or attend university. She was well known in geological circles in Britain, Europe and America, often knowing far more about fossils and geology than her buyers, but being a woman she was not eligible to join The Geological Society of London, therefore did not always receive full credit for her scientific contributions. She wrote "The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone", and the only scientific writing published in her lifetime was in The Magazine of Natural History in 1839 - an extract from a letter she had written to the editor questioning one of its claims.

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."

Anning continued to support herself by selling fossils in Lyme Regis, but collecting them was certainly dangerous work. In 1823 an article in The Bristol Mirror said of her:

"This persevering female has for years gone daily in search of fossil remains of importance at every tide, for many miles under the hanging cliffs at Lyme, whose fallen masses are her immediate object, as they alone contain these valuable relics of a former world, which must be snatched at the moment of their fall, at the continual risk of being crushed by the half suspended fragments they leave behind, or be left to be destroyed by the returning tide: – to her exertions we owe nearly all the fine specimens of Ichthyosauri of the great collections"

Autograph letter concerning the discovery of plesiosaurus, from Mary Anning

In 1826 when she was 27, Anning purchased a home with a glass front window for her shop 'Anning's Fossil Depot'. The business was successful enough that it was in the local paper, which mentioned the skeletons on display. Many geologists and collecters visited the shop in Lyme, including geologist George William Featherstonhaugh who called her "a very clever funny creature". He purchased fossils from her for the newly opened New York Lyceum of Natural History in 1827.

The risks of the profession were proved in 1833 when she barely escaped a landslide which sadly killed her beloved dog Tray, pictured proudly in her portrait above. She wrote to a friend "Perhaps you will laugh when I say that the death of my old faithful dog has quite upset me, the cliff that fell upon and killed him in a moment before my eyes and close to my was but a moment between me and the same fate".

Her later years brought one more major find, a new type of plesiosaur which sold for £200, but sadly she was plagued by financial difficulties and ill health, dying of breast cancer when she was only 47. Her work had tailed off during the last few years of her life because of her illness, and as some townspeople misinterpreted the effects of the increasing doses of laudanum she was taking for the pain, gossip in Lyme was she had a drinking problem. 

After her death, Henry De la Beche, president of the Geological Society, wrote a eulogy that he read to a meeting of the society and published in its quarterly transactions. It was the first such eulogy given for a woman. These were honours normally only accorded to fellows of the society, which did not admit women until 1904. The eulogy began:

"I cannot close this notice of our losses by death without advertising to that of one, who though not placed among even the easier classes of society, but one who had to earn her daily bread by her labour, yet contributed by her talents and untiring researches in no small degree to our knowledge of the great Enalio-Saurians, and other forms of organic life entombed in the vicinity of Lyme Regis ..."

Her unusual life story attracted increasing interest, Charles Dickens wrote of her in 1865 that "The carpenter's daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it." In 2010, one hundred and sixty-three years after her death, The Royal Society included Anning in a list of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science.

Mary was a true heroine. She never stopped striving to discover more about the earth and laid strong foundations that are still standing proudly today. I holiday every year in Charmouth and Lyme Regis, and always imagine Mary walking the coastline in that iconic bonnet and dress. Perhaps to some, it's a lonely image, but surely, it's a liberating one! She ignored what was socially acceptable and kept digging to discover the truth about the Earth, and inspired many women to delve into the scientific world. We must celebrate her amazing life's work and inspiring character, and find some comfort that at least now, she finally has the recognition she deserves. I can't wait to be walking that coastline again.

Thanks for reading!


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