Mary Anning’s life could easily have been snuffed out just as it was beginning. As a storm erupted over Lyme Regis, members of an audience who had come to enjoy the spectacle of a travelling troupe of horse riders took shelter under a tree. The sky flashed to life as lightning coursed through the tree and the bodies of three women huddled beneath its branches, killing them instantly. One of these women was holding her friend’s baby, the infant Mary, but somehow the babe in her arms miraculously survived.
Throughout her life, Mary was quite extraordinary. At a time when women’s acceptance by the scientific community was minimal at best, she was a pioneer in the science of palaeontology. Her discoveries were breath-taking, and her approach to understanding the fossils she found was brilliant. She made her greatest discoveries before the word dinosaur had even been coined to describe the prehistoric beasts that roamed Earth millions of years ago.
And yet through her work, by the time of her death at the age of just 47, our understanding of this prehistoric world was already beginning to take shape.
Today, the Natural History Museum in London proclaims her as the “greatest fossil hunter”. But what made her so special? Like palaeontologists struggling to reconstruct entire vanished worlds from stony scraps, sketching her life relies on historical fragments.
Who was Mary Anning?
Born in 1799, Anning was raised in a poor family of religious dissenters who believed in education. She is known to have read an essay by her pastor urging the study of geology, but it was her father Richard who nurtured her skill in fossil hunting. He scoured the beaches and seaside cliffs for objects to sell, to boost his income as a cabinet maker.
Sited next to extraordinarily rich Jurassic deposits dating back nearly 200 million years, Lyme Regis became known as a source of stony curios. As a child, Mary helped her father find, clean and sell these strange – and yet to be explained – vestiges of a mysterious bestiary, from ammonites to predatory reptiles.
Combing the beach was a profitable but dangerous enterprise. The cliffs could collapse without warning, and there was always the risk of falling from them. In later life, Mary experienced further close escapes when she was nearly consumed by a landslide that killed her beloved dog, Tray, and she almost drowned while lost in concentration digging out a below-tide find.
Nige Tassell and Michael Taylor explore Dorset’s Jurassic Coast, where 19th-century palaeontologist Mary Anning made some of the most significant geological finds in history…
In 1810, tragedy struck her family when Richard, in a weakened state after falling from the cliffs, contracted tuberculosis and died. The family was left in dire straits and it fell to Mary and her elder brother Joseph to turn a childhood hobby into a business.
Just a year later, they struck lucky. Joseph found a gigantic fossilised skull, which they initially believed might have been a crocodile. As Joseph was too busy to excavate the rest of this creature, 12-year-old Mary took charge and, over the next few months, dug out the most complete ichthyosaur skeleton yet found, reaching a length of more than five metres long. A dolphin-like marine reptile, the ichthyosaur excited attention from museums and collectors alike. And yet the family income remained unstable.
Along the beaches of what is now known as England’s Jurassic coast, the cliffs continued to offer up their prehistoric treasure to Anning’s hammer. In the winter of 1823, she found the first almost-complete skeleton of a plesiosaur – the long-necked, four-flippered ‘sea dragon’ – a discovery that made her famous. The renowned French palaeontologist Georges Cuvier started referring to her as a collector of note. In order to evaluate her finds and their potential value, Anning needed detailed anatomical expertise. She copied scientific articles by hand, but she was more than a sponge for the work of others. Curious and unafraid to independently experiment and theorise, she dissected living creatures to better understand the mysterious bodies she was finding.
Anning amassed a wealth of knowledge not only of excavation but palaeontology. She discovered new species, plus some of the first known examples of massive creatures such as pterosaurs – the first vertebrates known to have evolved to fly.
One of her more significant contributions was when she correctly deduced that strange stones she found were actually what became known as coprolites, or fossilised dung. This allowed scientists to study the diet of dinosaurs, and so learn a great deal about how they lived. Yet Anning’s skills went beyond fossils to include geological principles and her business acumen.
When she was 27, she opened her own shop, Anning’s Fossil Depot, with a glazed bow window displaying primeval enticements to passing tourists.
Among her illustrious customers was the king of Saxony, to whom she sold an ichthyosaur, informing him, in no uncertain terms, of her celebrity status. Yet despite her commercial success, she was keenly aware that she was getting a raw deal in professional terms
In the scientific paper announcing her big plesiosaur find of 1823, her role is hidden behind the phrase that the skeleton had been “discovered at Lyme”. Even when some, like Cuvier, named her, none offered the opportunity to co-author. Her finds were desired, but Anning remained an outsider to the scientific community.
Friends and fossils
Anning did, however, enjoy more equal fossiling relationships, particularly with women. A letter, now held at the University of Oxford’s Museum of Natural History, written by her enduring collaborator Elizabeth Philpot, reveals how she became involved in a network of amateur female fossil collectors, geologists and palaeontologists.
Philpot, a middle-class spinster who had moved to Lyme Regis, went collecting nearly every day with Anning, but in contrast to her friend, she had no need to sell her hauls. They had an inventive collaboration too, as recounted in the letter. Anning realised that belemnites – a small, squid-like creature – contained ink sacs. After she shared this discovery, Philpot ground one up to make her own pigment, which she then used to sketch an ichthyosaur skull.
Together, they then sent this artistic and scientific co-production not to the prominent palaeontologist William Buckland, with whom they had a regular correspondence, but his wife Mary Morland. Well before her marriage, she had cultivated an interest in fossils and illustrated for Cuvier, making her a skilled scientific draughtsperson.
While this letter opens a window on this part of Anning’s life, it is still tricky to know what she was really like. A striking description by a visiting naturalist in 1837 focused on her energy, strength and tanned skin. Her only official portrait, painted late in life, is tinted by social decorum and time.
There is, however, a candid sketch by her geologist friend Henry De la Beche, showing a mature woman in plaid skirt and dark cape, intent on the ground beneath her. She carries a geological hammer, and on her head is not a bonnet, but a top hat. While untitled, it’s hard to imagine who else this might depict, with its business-like focus and slightly maverick feel to the headgear. And we know De la Beche was close to the Anning family, as he donated profits from two reconstructions of fossil creatures he painted, based on her finds.
Sisters in science: Anning, Murchison and more
Mary Anning is often presented as a rare creature, emerging from dingy circumstances to shine bright, but alone. This is far from the truth. She was part of an informal network of women geologists and palaeontologists, which went far beyond her friend Elizabeth Philpot. An older fossil collector she might have heard of was Etheldred Bennett. When Anning was establishing her business, Bennett had a respected reputation, published new species and received an honorary degree from Tsar Nicholas I of Russia.
Another member of Anning’s connections was Charlotte Murchison. The impetus behind her famous husband Roderick’s geological career, Charlotte was trained in fossiling by Anning. The Murchisons went on extended European field trips with geologist pair Charles Lyell and his wife Mary Horner. Charlotte also knew William Buckland’s wife Mary Morland. And it was thanks to a drawing by Morland – based on a sketch of Anning’s – that Georges Cuvier was persuaded the plesiosaur skeleton Anning found in 1823 was real, having initially thought this “monstrous” creature must be a fake. From that point on, he began to cite Anning as an important collector.
Anning acquired something of a legendary reputation. There were even fanciful claims that the lightning incident as a baby had a metamorphic affect, changing her constitution and personality. Whatever the reality, she had a spark of intelligence and drive.
The same naturalist who noted her energy and complexion – and called her “the princess of palaeontology” – also found her to be masculine, which may refer to a blunt manner and unusual confidence. An alleged prickly character is perhaps understandable given what she overcame. In her own words: “The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of all mankind.” Yet she wasn’t down-trodden.
Well aware of her expertise, Anning jokingly scorned Buckland’s anatomical knowledge compared to her own, and she could be affectionate and generous. She kept her faith until the end, while beginning to accommodate evolution into her understanding.
Other insights into her personality can be gleaned from her commonplace book, a volume containing handwritten prayers, poems and quotations. Such a practice was not out of the ordinary, but Anning’s demonstrates her ability to pick out gems amongst the Jurassic jetsam.
The book includes strikingly apposite literary selections, including poems that reference the “outcast’s mis’ry”. Most poignant is a decidedly feminist quote from letters by Anna Seward: “Nothing but an independent fortune can enable an amiable female to look down, without misery, on the censures of the many, and even in that situation their arrows have power to wound.”
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Mary Anning’s death and legacy
At the height of her expertise, Anning died of breast cancer aged 47. Her Commonplace Book whispers to us of a woman who rightly desired a legacy for her talent. Yet if she had been born into more fortunate circumstances, it is possible that she might never have discovered her vocation.
Nearly two centuries on, Anning would no doubt be gratified at renewed interest in her work. She is increasingly a fixture in variations of ‘Ten Inspiring Women…’. But her status as a historic role model wasn’t foisted on her by the 21st century.
Anning was deeply inspiring to young women who knew her personally. The 14-year-old Frances Augusta Bell came to Lyme Regis for health reasons and found friendship, and a palaeontology tutor, with the older Anning. Another young friend and correspondent was Anna Maria Pinney, who wrote in her journal, “I really love Mary Anning”. A telling posthumous account notes that Anning had become such a tourist attraction in her own right that after her death, visitor numbers to Lyme Regis decreased.
In palaeontology, the best route to immortality is via the naming of a grand fossil species. Other 19th-century women were honoured in this way during their lifetimes, but in the years following her death, Anning accrued just a couple of extinct molluscs, fish and coral. Finally, in 2015, she was bonded in perpetuity to a relative of one of the marvellous monsters for which she became famous, a new species of Ichthyosaur named Ichthyosaurus anningae.
Was Mary Anning the inspiration for She sells sea-shells on the sea-shore?
Perhaps the best-known evidence of Mary Anning’s scientific legacy is that she is widely believed to be the subject of She sells seashells by the sea shore.
Her discoveries and self-taught work, although dismissed by a few as the efforts of simply a lucky collector, deserved far more than a tongue twister. And she did it without the equal access or opportunities that were given to her male contemporaries.
Anning’s remarkable fossils are still in demand for research. One of her plesiosaurs is at the Natural History Museum in London, along with some ‘flying dragon’ pterosaurs. The latter are looked after by senior curator Dr Lorna Steel. In an echo back to the young Lyme fossil hunter of two centuries ago, Steel accepted a donation in 2013 of a newly discovered pterosaur, Vectidraco daisymorrisae, named for its discoverer, five-year-old Daisy Morris.
Rebecca Wragg Sykes is the author of Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art (Bloomsbury Sigma, 2019)