An inspirational woman – Mary Anning
She sells sea shells
Since discovering Mary Anning (May 21, 1799 – March 9, 1847) I have wanted to find out about her life. She was an inspiration to women and science. Her social status and gender at that time affected the documentation of her fossil finds and she wasn’t given the credit she deserved , her finds were bought and shown in museums without acknowledgement of her finding them. Although she won the scientific community’s respect being an intelligent woman who made important discoveries that played an important part in the new science of Evolution which lead to Charles Darwins ‘Origin of Species’
It was a struggle for Mary though in later years, it is said that she became resentful of scientists that didnt acknowledge her contributions to science. Geological societies didn’t allow women as guests never mind let them be members, so many of the discriptions of Mary’s fossils were published by men who often didn’t even mention her name. She worked hard all of her life documenting the fossil finds yet because she was a woman and came from a poor background, at that time she wasn’t credited for her dedication and scientific work. A woman who sometimes went fossil hunting with Mary later on in her life wrote this….”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.”
At the age of 15 months old Mary was being held by a neighbour standing under an elm tree with two other girls .The tree was hit by lightening and unfortunatly the 3 others were killed but amazingly Mary survived. Members of her community thereafter attributed her curiosity and intelligence to her miraculous survival.
As she was growing up she would go hunting for ‘curiosities’ with her Father Richard Anning and Brother Joseph Anning. Richard was a carpenter but would suppliment his income by fossil hunting and selling his finds on a stall in Lyme Regis where Mary lived all of her life. At that time collecting fossils had become a pastime, the importance of fossils was only just becoming recognised as Geology and biology were only starting to becoming more advanced within Marys lifetime.
Mary’s father unfortunatly died when she was eleven, so herself and Joseph took over their Fathers fossil business and searched for curiosities on their own.
In around 1810, around the same time her father died, her brother Joseph discovered the first ever fossil of a Icthyosaur skull. Around a year later Mary found the rest of the fossilised remains. After this they became familiar to the scientific community. Times were hard for Mary and her family after her fathers death and they resorted to selling their furniture just to pay the rent. An aquaintence of Mary’s Lt. Col. Thomas James Birch who had bought fossils from her, including an ichthyosaur fossil, saw that the family were struggling to make ends meet. He very generously auctioned the fossils he had bought and gave the proceeds to Mary and her family.
At around 1820 Mary made her most important find, the first ever near complete Plesiosaur and not long after found the first pterosaur fossil to be found in England. Then in 1826 at the age of 27 Mary had saved enough money to buy a home with a glass front to sell her fossils from, she called it Anning’s Fossil Depot. Collectors from as far as America came to buy fossils from her shop in which she had an Ichthosaur fossil on show inside. Geologists and even the King of Saxomy bought fossils from Mary’s shop to exhibit in their natural history collections.
Mary self taught herself the science she needed to understand her fossils, she borrowed scientific papers and sat for hours and copied them word for word. She read as much scientific literature she could get hold of. She dissected modern animals to try to understand her fossils. she really dedicated her life to the love of her fossils.
Palentologists such as Henry De la Beche, William buckland and Richard Owen heard about Mary and went fossil hunting with her.
In the 1830’s Mary encountered more financial difficulties. Her friend Henry De la Beche commissioned George Johann Scharf to make a lithographic print of his water colour painting Duria Antiquior which was based on Mary’s finds.
The painting portrayed prehistoric life in Dorset. copies were sold to wealthy friends and gologists and the proceeds were given to Mary but by 1835 she was once again having money troubles after loosing all of her £300 life savings on a bad investment.
She finally received a £25 annual civil pension from the government for her many contributions to science and geology until she died at the age of 47 from breast cancer. Her friend Henry De la Beche, who by this time was president of the Geological society of London, wrote a fitting eulogy for Mary, one that was read at the society meeting which was seen as a great honour…
“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..”
If I could go back in time and spend the day with a famous person of the past I would pick Mary Annings on a day she was fossil hunting.