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Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Woman Naturalist: Mary Anning

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.
On March 9th, the world marked the 166th anniversary of the death of Mary Anning, one of the bravest and most diligent amateur naturalists in history. Despite remarkable discoveries for which she was well compensated, her status as a self-taught, working-class woman meant that Mary Anning’s existence in the published record of science is spotty at best. Her story is nearly unbelievable from the start.

Mary Anning was born on May 21, 1799, in the seaside community of Lyme Regis, in the south of England. From the outset, she had an eventful life; she was named after an older sister who perished in a house fire, and at the age of 14 months, young Mary was the sole survivor of a lightening strike that claimed three members of her community. Her father, Richard, was a cabinetmaker, but also a fossil collector who sold his finds to the visitors of Lyme Regis beaches. When he died in 1810, the Anning family fell into debt. It was in 1811 that Mary’s older brother Joseph found the skull of a “crocodile” in the cliffs near their home, prompting Mary to investigate further. Nearly one year later, she had located the complete skeleton and hired help to free the fossil from the cliff. This specimen is usually considered the first Ichthyosaurus to be found (although reexamination of the historical shows that earlier specimens were discovered earlier), and its description and image were published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1814. Noticeably absent from this paper is any credit due to Mary Anning or her brother.

Mary sold the famous Ichthyosaur skeleton for a handsome sum, following in her father’s footsteps and quickly becoming the family breadwinner. In December 1823, Mary’s next major discovery came to light; it was the nearly complete Plesiosaurus described in the Transactions of the Geological Society of London; once again, Mary Anning is not credited by name in the paper.

Image of Mary Anning's Plesiosaur from Transactions of the Geological Society of London. ser. 2 vol. 1.

It is around this time that Mary Anning became an object of fascination to the scientific community. Visitors came to Lyme Regis to meet her, including scientists and collectors from around Europe and the United States. The next decade continued to be a productive one, as she found the first Pterosaur ever discovered in Great Britain; the flying reptile captured the public imagination and her fame spread outside of scientific circles, possibly because she was named in the paper. She also unearthed more complete Plesiosaur and Ichthyosaur specimens, correctly identified coprolites as fossil feces, discovered a remarkable fossil fish named Squaloraja, a creature illustrating the link between sharks and rays, and found specimens of the invertebrate Belemnosepia with intact fossil ink sacs, containing viable ink that could be used for drawing. By the late 1820s, Mary’s work was recognized and her new discoveries often published by William Buckland, the great geologist who described the bones of the giant reptile he dubbed Megalosaurus, which we now recognize as the first published description of a dinosaur.

Image of Mary Anning's Pterosaur from Transactions of the Geological Society of London. ser. 2 vol. 3.


Mary Anning's letter to the Magazine of Natural History. n.s. vol. 3, 1839.
Mary’s fame continued to grow, and she continued to operate her fossil shop in Lyme Regis, selling significant specimens to scientists, collectors, and museums. In 1838, she was recognized by the British Association for the Advancement of Science with a special yearly stipend of £25. In 1846, the Geological Society of London arranged further funds for her welfare. Sadly, in 1847, Mary Anning died of breast cancer at the age of 47. She was honored with an obituary published in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, a particularly remarkable tribute given that the Society was not open to women at this time.

I mentioned that Mary Anning is not well represented in the published literature. In fact, there is only one item known to be authored by her, a letter she wrote to The Magazine of Natural History, published in 1839 and available here in the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

We hope you enjoyed this post. Interested in guest-blogging for BHL? We'd love that! Natural history, biodiversity and conservation topics are especially welcomed. Email us your ideas at feedback@biodiversitylibrary.org.

Rebecca Morin | Head Librarian, California Academy of Science

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