My history hero: Mary Anning (1799–1847)

Actor Jenny Agutter chooses Mary Anning, a renowned fossil collector and palaeontologist, as her history hero

Mary Anning. (Photo by The Natural History Museum/Alamy Stock Photo)

“I admire the extraordinary imagination, energy and determination that enabled her not just to overcome her circumstances, but to become one of the country’s most eminent palaeontologists”

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Born in Lyme Regis in humble circumstances, she made a number of important finds along the Jurassic Coast in Dorset, including ichthyosaur, plesiosaur and pterosaur skeletons. Despite becoming well known in geological circles, as a woman she was barred from joining the Geological Society of London, and struggled financially all her life. In 2010, the Royal Society included her in a list of the 10 most influential British women in the history of science. She was also said to have inspired the tongue-twister: ‘She sells sea-shells on the sea-shore.’

When did you first hear about Mary Anning?

Several years ago, a friend who is a film director gave me her script about Mary Anning, to see if I might want to be involved in making a film about her. I was intrigued because, like many people, I knew next to nothing about this woman who was part-artist, part-scientist. But the more I read up about Mary, the more admirable I found her.

What kind of person was Anning?

One of 10 children (only two survived to adulthood), she was the daughter of a cabinetmaker who supplemented his meagre income by mining the cliffside fossil beds near Lyme Regis. This sowed in Mary a lifelong love for fossils. She read voraciously, and taught herself how to draw the skeletons she unearthed. By her teens, she was already making important discoveries.

What made her a hero?

Mary Anning was just 11 years old when her father died. The family had no money, she had virtually no education and her prospects were very limited. She had learnt from her father to recognise what stones might hide something of interest, and developed the art of uncovering what lay within them to reveal their secrets. Mary worked hard to learn all she could about the science of palaeontology. Above all, I admire the extraordinary imagination, energy and determination that enabled her not just to overcome her circumstances, but to become one of the country’s most eminent palaeontologists.

What was her finest hour?

Mary made her first important discovery, a 17-foot-long ichthyosaur skeleton, at the age of 12. In 1828, she discovered the first pterosaur flying reptile ever found in the UK and the following year a squaloraja fish skeleton. But for me, her finest hour was the discovery of a plesiosaur marine reptile when she was 24. It required huge skill to reconstruct it and she needed to have absolute faith in herself, as many people refused to believe that her discovery was real. Is there anything about her you don’t particularly admire? She survived by selling fossils, but never made much money, so I just wish Mary had been a better businesswoman. She was ripped off and treated with less respect than she should have been.

Can you see any parallels between her life and your own?

Very few: I also started working while a child, but through happy circumstance, not tragedy. I understand in a small way the thrill of finding artefacts. Growing up in Cyprus, which is steeped in ancient history, my family would visit Salamis. Snorkelling on that coast, I learnt to spot archaeological items – coins, lead seals, pottery and glass – from the Roman or Byzantine periods. It was exciting spotting verdigris in a crevice in the seabed and finding it was a Roman coin. Yet unlike Mary, I’ve never made any major discoveries!

Might you have followed in Mary’s footsteps then?

No, I could never have been a scientist. Her passion was matched with enormous patience and diligence – not attributes I have in huge amounts. Having had no science education at school, I would be lost. If you could meet Mary, what would you ask her? I’d ask her which of the many fossils she found she was proudest of discovering. I suspect it may have been her very first discovery.

Jenny Agutter was talking to York Membery. Jenny Agutter found fame as a child actor in The Railway Children (1970) and Walkabout (1971). She has since starred in many films, TV dramas and plays, including Call the Midwife.

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This article was first published in the January 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine