When excavating the history of palaeontology, you’ll dig up some fascinating scientific figures. There was Robert Plot, the 17th Century thinker who – without realising it – became the first person to publish a formal description of a dinosaur bone, believing it to be evidence of a long-dead race of giants. There was William Buckland, the flamboyant Victorian palaeontologist who liked to give lectures on horseback and proudly owned a table decorated with fossilised faeces (or coprolites) which, in the words of Buckland’s son, 'was often admired by persons who had not the least idea of what they were looking at'.
And then there was Mary Anning, the woman who actually deduced what coprolites were, though it was William Buckland who would publicise her insight and take the credit. HISTORY’s Not What You Thought You Knew podcast, which sheds light on marginalised figures from the past, tells the story of Anning, who played a crucial role in the early days of palaeontology, yet was constantly sidelined in favour of peers who had the significant advantages of being moneyed and male.
Born in 1799 in Lyme Regis, Mary was ideally positioned to be a fossil hunter – the buried, prehistoric treasures of Dorset’s 'Jurassic Coast' were right there on her doorstep. Her father, a carpenter by trade, was a keen finder of fossils, selling his discoveries to tourists to earn much-needed extra cash for the family. Young Mary proved to be a very able assistant, and some locals believed her fierce intelligence and passion had been literally sparked by a dramatic incident in her infancy. As the story goes, a woman holding the baby Mary was killed by a sudden bolt of lightning. Mary miraculously survived.
Young Mary helped bring in money by selling ornate fossils such as ammonites, the spiral-shaped remains of long-extinct marine molluscs which were once known as snakestones. (It’s been claimed that the classic tongue twister “She sells sea shells on the sea shore” was actually based on Anning, although – sadly – there’s no real evidence for this to be the case.)
This persevering female has for years gone daily in search of fossil remains of importance at every tide
The real turning point in Mary’s career came when she was just 12. Her brother Joseph, also a keen fossil hunter, uncovered the skull of an ichthyosaur, a prehistoric sea reptile which lived at the same time as the dinosaurs. Mary excavated more of the beast in the ensuing months, and their find was eventually displayed in London, triggering a flurry of scientific papers about this new creature which fundamentally altered humanity’s view of the ancient past. None of these papers gave the Annings credit for the find.
But Mary Anning was on her way. Despite her lack of formal education, despite hailing from a poverty-stricken family far from the scientific nerve centre of London, she slowly but surely established herself as an authority on fossils. There was even a poignant description of the gutsy young fossil hunter published in the Bristol Mirror. 'This persevering female has for years gone daily in search of fossil remains of importance at every tide, for many miles under the hanging cliffs at Lyme,' the article said. 'To her exertions we owe nearly all the fine specimens of Ichthyosauri of the great collections.'
It was hard, potentially deadly work. Her beloved terrier, Tray, was crushed to death when a landslide hit them during one of her excursions. 'It was but a moment between me and the same fate,' Mary later wrote to a friend.
Yet she remained utterly undaunted and devoted to her calling, discovering the first complete skeleton of a plesiosaurus – a marine reptile of the Jurassic period. The skeleton was so incredible and outlandish that Georges Cuvier, dubbed the father of palaeontology, thought it was some kind of hoax. According to a later article, Cuvier scoffed that it was 'the most monstrous animal that has yet been found', with 'a lizard’s head, a crocodile’s teeth, a trunk and tail like an ordinary quadruped, a chameleon’s rubs, a whale’s paddles, whilst its neck as of enormous length, like a serpent tacked on to the body'.
The miraculous monster was eventually confirmed to be authentic, and Mary Anning would go on to find more plesiosaurus remains, along with other magnificent prehistoric relics which would be analysed in trailblazing scientific papers without any formal mention of Anning herself. She was certainly not able to join the Geological Society of London, which would not admit its first female Fellow until many decades later.
While gentlemen collectors and gentlemen scientists took all the official credit in these early days of palaeontology, Mary was 'unofficially' famous, earning international admiration for being an entirely self-taught expert in her field. She opened her own fossil shop which became a place of pilgrimage for fossil collectors and geologists. One customer was King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony, who turned up in her shop to buy an ichthyosaur skeleton for his own private collection.
Unsurprisingly, Mary felt immense frustration that, because of her gender and her social class, she could never get the real credit to which she was due. A friend, Anna Pinney, wrote that Mary believed “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.'
Mary Anning died aged just 47 from breast cancer. So great was her renown that, despite not allowing her to become a member, the Geological Society raised money to cover her expenses when she was too ill to work. While it has taken generations for her name to go mainstream and earn the respect it deserves, her importance was nicely summed up in a Victorian magazine edited by Charles Dickens, published after her death: 'The carpenter's daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.'