Mary Anning’s story

Rebecca SmithRebecca Smith grew up in the middle of nowhere in the North of England and now lives in Central Scotland. She writes mainly short fiction and has work published in various magazines.  She produced live radio for nearly 10 years, living almost purely off adrenaline. She currently works for BBC Radio Drama. When she was little you would have found her digging up dinosaurs, collecting rocks and climbing mountains.  She feels at home surrounded by the natural world. You can follow Rebeca on Twitter @beckorio.

Mary AnningI have a dinosaur on my bookshelf.  A real, 160 million year old, ichthyosaur jaw, sharp teeth and all. It is my totem to dangerous women, a reminder of one of the most influential women in the history of science, the fossil hunter Mary Anning. Even in difficult times she never stopped doing what she loved, and in doing so changed the way we see the world.

There’s no denying it, Mary Anning had perseverance. Born in 1799 into a family of low social standing, she had no real scientific education. Her father, a carpenter, taught her how to search for fossils on the coast in the area of Lyme Regis. He sold them to tourists as curios. After her father’s death she continued to search for fossils, selling them to help keep her family afloat. Mary is the origin of the tongue twister ‘she sells sea shells on the sea shore.’ But of course, she did much more than sell sea shells. She laid the foundations of modern thinking.

Mary became famous at age 12, after unearthing an ichthyosaur (large marine reptile) skeleton alongside her brother, Joseph. He reportedly mistook the skull for a crocodile. Who wouldn’t?  It was 1812, almost half a century before Charles Darwin published The Origin of the Species. Even the most educated of men (for only men were allowed a good education) believed that God’s creatures did not die out. The idea of extinction simply didn’t exist.

Mary went on to excavate the rest of the skeleton over the following months.  This hard work and determination made her famous. A young girl in a hat and petticoats, scraping away at the sandy soil, unearthing this pre-historic creature; you can just imagine the local remarks. I love her for it.

Over the years she discovered many more important fossils which paved the way for the science of palaeontology. When she was 27, Mary had saved enough money to open a small shop to sell her fossils. Tourists flocked to see this curious woman who studied the rocks after a storm, her little dog Troy at her feet. She would often go fossil hunting after a storm as the wind and rain created rock fall on the cliffs which enabled the fossils to be more easily found. It also meant that the cliffs were unstable and unfortunately she lost her dog and nearly her own life in a landslide on one occasion. It is said she took to wearing a top hat to protect herself after this incident. You couldn’t say she wasn’t devoted to her science.

Mary studied the fossils she found, comparing them to living creatures that were similar in structure.  She learnt much about the anatomy of the pre-historic specimens in this way, even discovering a chamber of ink in a Belemnite fossil and likening it to the modern day squid and their ability to squirt ink as protection.  She also discovered fossilised faeces by dissecting (what we now call) bezoars and finding fish scales and teeth inside.  She read as many books on anatomy and sciences as she could get her hands on. The Nobel woman, Lady Harriet Silvester said of Mary, she is “so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong. She fixes the bones on a frame with cement and then makes drawings and has them engraved. . . It is certainly a wonderful instance of divine favour – that this poor, ignorant girl should be so blessed, for by reading and application she has arrived to that degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom.”

It is a shame, but not surprising, that Lady Harriet believed that Mary’s knowledge was an ‘instance of divine favour’.  At least now we recognise that Mary’s ‘degree of knowledge’ came entirely from her diligence and intellect.  But Lady Harriet was right about one thing; Mary knew the science of fossils so thoroughly that geologists from all over Europe came to seek her opinions.

When, in 1830 she discovered a nearly complete skeleton of a Plesiosaurus, a drawing of it was sent to the French anatomist, George Cuvier. He realised Marys discovery reinforced his own theory: that whole species have disappeared in Earth’s history. The idea of extinction was stirring.

But remember this was an era when women couldn’t vote, were not allowed to attend university and the world of employment was limited to say the least. Despite her knowledge of this new science of palaeontology she was not accepted into the Geological Society of London (it was only in 1904 the first woman was accepted into the Society).

And, worst, some geologists passed off her finds as their own. She was never credited with the hard work of discovery, the days digging and her expertly trained eye. Her friend, Anna Pinney, who sometimes collected fossils with her, wrote: “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.”  It must have been an endlessly difficult world to find herself in, one where she had proved herself time and time again but where her name meant nothing.  Mary wrote, “The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone.”

Despite this, Mary had a small number of good friends in the scientific community. They did their best to champion her research and knowledge throughout her life and saw that a pension was raised for her when she fell into hard times.

Mary died of breast cancer aged 47. She had endured not only a life outside in all weathers, a pinafore full of fossils, but a life outside the scientific world in which she was not recognised, despite her unending work. A stained glass window was commissioned in memory of her in her local church. It says: “in commemoration of her usefulness in furthering the science of geology, as also of her benevolence of heart and integrity of life.”

Furthering the science of geology, she did. Finally, in 2010, the Royal Society included Mary in a list of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science. It’s a start. So how about ‘she sells sea shells?’ The next time you attempt the tongue twister pass on the knowledge about the incredible woman that inspired it. About how this young woman with a little hammer and dirt in her fingernails forced the world to re-imagine its beginnings. Mary Anning was a truly dangerous woman: she was brave enough to challenge the status-quo, not only of the earth’s origins but also what a woman is capable of.

My totem, the ichthyosaur jaw on the bookshelf, is a reminder that hard work pays off.  And, if you’re passionate about something, nothing should stop you from doing it.


Further reading on Mary Anning

Lyme Regis Museum

Geology at the University of Bristol

Natural History Museum

Jurassic Mary: Mary Anning and the Primeval Monsters by Patricia Pierce