19th century / Science

‘I do like a contest with the bigwigs’: How Mary Anning Struck Scientific Gold

By Jack Coombs

Mary Anning is a name little known, even in the fields of palaeontology, and geology, which she so influenced. Born in 1799 in Lyme Regis, Dorset, she was conveniently placed, both in an era when these early sciences were set to undergo a renaissance of advancement, and beside a three-mile long stretch of coast, which, by quarrying, or erosion by the sea, frequently revealed new and wonderful secrets from the Jurassic period. However, Mary was also born to an impoverished working class family, without prospect of scientific education, and hampered by a century where female involvement in the sciences faced ridicule, and institutional barriers.

Although her finds gripped the academic community and captured the imagination of the British public, and her theories and analyses hinted Darwinism before Darwin, her circumstances denied her the respect and recognition she so deserved. For Mary’s work was not only revolutionary in changing the way people perceived the world, but was also conducted at no little risk to herself. Indeed wading about volatile cliffs at low tide in search of specimens was a dangerous affair, and the lack of coastal health and safety regulation enough to shock the modern mandarin. As John Fowles stated; ‘One of the meanest disgraces of British palaeontology is that though many scientists of the day gratefully used her finds to establish their own reputation, not one native type bears the name anningii‘.

Mary learnt the basics of her trade from her father, Richard Anning a cabinet-maker who supplemented his income by collecting and selling fossils as ‘oddities’ from the front of his shop to locals and tourists. However when, in 1810, Richard died of consumption leaving the family in over £100 of debt, Mary and her brother Joseph began to collect fossils full-time. Yet the interest was much more than merely pecuniary, armed with a degree of literacy from her parish schoolings her passion for geology and palaeontology soon led to her read voraciously about these sciences. At the meagre age of 14 Mary conducted dissections of dead cuttlefish and squid to aid her understanding of the anatomy of these ancient creatures, and introduced contemporary academics, such as William Buckland and the young Henry de la Beche, to the wonders of Lyme. Mary found the fossils, Henry drew them, and William wrote about them for scholars. Yet though Henry and William through their works, patronage, and gender rose to be the President of the Geographical Society of London, and the first Oxford Professor of Geology respectively, Mary remained in relative obscurity.

Mary’s first discovery was made in the year 1811. The year before her brother had found the skull of what is today know as an Ichthyosaur (a marine reptile existing between approximately 245 and 90 million years ago) and Mary had, with her typical zeal and determination combed the area meticulously before finding the rest of the skeleton. Although not the first Ichthyosaur discovered, it was the first complete one and served to further the knowledge of the genus to such a degree that it was soon proclaimed in the Transactions of the Royal Society. The Ichthyosaur was a powerful carnivore capable of swimming at around 25mph and, when full grown, could have weighed up to a ton and be as long as 4m in length. This find went some way toward securing her reputation as a fossil-hunter and, although she was not credited as a palaeontologist or recognised publically at all, her work attracted the attention of a retired Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Birch, himself an avid collector.

In light of the work of Anning family he generously sold his own fossil collection for sum of £400 in a bid both to raise the family out of poverty and to support the furtherance of Mary’s work. Although this support was of great use yet Mary’s brother was still forced to take up a career in upholstery, leaving Mary alone to persist in her studies. Whilst her progression in these was rapid; lending her an extensive knowledge of species and anatomy, complementing her existing skills in the extraction, cleaning preservation of skeletons; the next 9 years were to prove quite frustrating, yielding no major finds.


However, in 1821, Mary struck scientific, and literal, gold. First uncovering two other Ichthyosaurs in May whose teeth variation provided evidence of the existence of sub-species, Mary then discovered the first ever skeleton of a Plesiosaurus, a creature ingeniously described at the time as ‘a serpent pulled through a turtle’, which attracted great popular interest. The Plesiosaurus (a name coined by the academic William Conybeare soon after the discovery) was an early Jurassic marine reptile of great size, growing up 6 meters long. Its most distinctive features included; an unusually small head, slender and elongated neck, a wide and rounded torso, a short tail, and two sets of enormous paddles. Indeed the discovery was so bizarre that, upon examining detailed drawings Georges Cuvier, a prominent French anatomist, doubted the validity of the specimen. Fortunately Cuvier realised his error, and before too long, began a frequent correspondence with Mary concerning a range of the latest theories and discoveries.

This discovery proved to be the first of many breakthroughs for Mary: A few years later she found an unrivalled Dapedium politum, and discovered four species of ammonites alongside the fin-bones protecting the primitive Hybodus shark, and, later still, in 1828, she exposed an amazing example of a Pterosaur (the first found outside Germany). The Dapedium politum was a bizarre enamelled-scaled fish, which came into existence in the late Triassic Period, and the Pterosaur was a fascinating winged reptile, some of which had a 12ft wing span formed of a membrane of skin and muscle, a bizarre quadruped creature which bewitched many leading palaeontologists of the time.

These finds and others after (including two more varying plesiosaurs and a new species of fish named Squaloraja), combined with Mary’s discovery of coprolites (fossilised bits of undigested food), which proved that fossils were created by the rapid entombment of animals, made Anning possibly the most accomplished palaeontologist ever. Such was Mary’s mastery of her field that a woman named Lady Silvester recorded upon visiting her that: ‘she understands more of the science than anyone else in the Kingdom’. Moreover, the magnitude of influence these discoveries had is not to be underrated; they struck serious blows to Christian and Geological beliefs of the time that the world was a mere 6000 years old, and that species never became extinct.

However Mary lived quite a solitary life; only leaving her hometown of Lyme Regis once for a brief visit to London. This isolation, compounded by the oral expression of her theories and ideas, made it all too easy for rivals to write her out of history following her death in March 1847. Although she received a short eulogy from her friend Henry De La Beche at the Geological Society, she was never mentioned in Conybeare’s speech to the Geological Society on her first Ichthyosaur, nor was she acknowledged as the discoverer of the vast majority of her finds by the museums or private collections in which they were housed. Whilst many contemporary scholars were willing thereafter to utilise her ideas and finds to enrich their work barely so much as footnote of recognition was offered her; Mary was a member of the wrong class, community and gender.

Fowles. J, The French Lieutenant’s Woman(1969)
Diary of Lady Silvester(1824)

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