Women’s History Month: Mary Anning (Palaeontologist)

Portrait of Mary Anning with her dog Tray and the Golden Cap outcrop in the background, Natural History Museum, London. This painting was owned by her brother Joseph, and presented to the museum in 1935 by Miss Annette Anning.

Mary Anning (21 May 1799 – 9 March 1847) was an English fossil collector, dealer, and palaeontologist who became known around the world for important finds she made in Jurassic marine fossil beds in the cliffs along the English Channel at Lyme Regis in the county of Dorset in Southwest England. Her findings contributed to important changes in scientific thinking about prehistoric life and the history of the Earth.

Drawing of partially complete skeleton of creature with long thin neck, small skull, and paddles
Letter and drawing from Mary Anning announcing the discovery of a fossil animal now known as Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus, 26 December 1823

Anning searched for fossils in the area’s Blue Lias cliffs, particularly during the winter months when landslides exposed new fossils that had to be collected quickly before they were lost to the sea. She nearly died in 1833 during a landslide that killed her dog, Tray. Her discoveries included the first ichthyosaur skeleton correctly identified; the first two more complete plesiosaur skeletons found; the first pterosaur skeleton located outside Germany; and important fish fossils. Her observations played a key role in the discovery that coprolites, known as bezoar stones at the time, were fossilised faeces. She also discovered that belemnite fossils contained fossilised ink sacs like those of modern cephalopods. When geologist Henry De la Beche painted Duria Antiquior, the first widely circulated pictorial representation of a scene from prehistoric life derived from fossil reconstructions, he based it largely on fossils Anning had found, and sold prints of it for her benefit.

Duria Antiquior - Wikipedia

She struggled financially for much of her life. Her family was poor, and her father, a cabinetmaker, died when she was eleven.

Sketch of woman in heavy clothing with top hat holding a rock hammer and looking down at a sandy beach
Sketch of Mary Anning at work by Henry De la Beche

After her death in 1847, her unusual life story attracted increasing interest. An uncredited author in All the Year Round, edited by Charles Dickens, wrote of her in 1865 that “[t]he carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.” It has often been claimed that her story was the inspiration for the 1908 tongue-twister “She sells seashells on the seashore” by Terry Sullivan. 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.

Sketch of house with two large front windows on either side of a front door and next to the steps leading up from the street to the door are two partially open cellar doors
1842 sketch of Anning’s house
Oval blue plaque marking site of Anning's house
Photo of upright gravestone

Anning died from breast cancer at the age of 47 on 9 March 1847. 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, there had been gossip in Lyme that she had a drinking problem. The regard in which she was held by the geological community was shown in 1846 when, upon learning of her cancer diagnosis, the Geological Society raised money from its members to help with her expenses and the council of the newly created Dorset County Museum made her an honorary member. She was buried on 15 March in the churchyard of St Michael’s, the local parish church. Members of the Geological Society contributed to a stained-glass window in her memory, unveiled in 1850. It depicts the six corporal acts of mercy—feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting prisoners and the sick, and the inscription reads: “This window is sacred to the memory of Mary Anning of this parish, who died 9 March AD 1847 and is erected by the vicar and some members of the Geological Society of London in commemoration of her usefulness in furthering the science of geology, as also of her benevolence of heart and integrity of life.” Mary Anning’s Window, St Michael’s Church

Photo of colourful stained class window showing human figures

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, 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 adverting 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 …

Charles Dickens wrote an article about her life in February 1865 in his literary magazine All the Year Round that emphasised the difficulties she had overcome, especially the scepticism of her fellow townspeople. He ended the article with: “The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.”

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