Mary was born in 1799 to a poor family in Lyme Regis, her father was a cabinet maker and she was one of 10 children (although only her and her elder brother, Joseph, survived into adulthood). She was fortunate to be able to learn to read and write at the Sunday School of the Congregationalist Church her dissenting parents attended. Yet as a girl from a poor working family in the early nineteenth century her opportunities were limited, probably working from home before marriage and motherhood, and a likely hand to mouth existence.
Mary’s father, however supplemented the family’s income by collecting and selling fossils and ‘marine curios’ to the wealthy middle class tourists who were increasingly visiting the town. Mary and Joseph accompanied him on his fossil hunting trip and she learned much from him at this time, not just about hunting for fossils but also about the important stages of cleaning and preparing them.
When her father died in 1810, Mary was only 11 and the family had to rely on support from the parish. It was shortly after this that Mary completed her first full extraction of an ichthyosaur, at 17 feet it was a major find.
During her fossil hunting years Mary was to meet most of the scientific thinkers and fossil collectors of the time. Despite her success and being so well known in her field, Mary Anning’s contributions were frequently not formally recorded and she herself felt that “these men of learning have sucked my brains and made a great deal of publishing works of which I furnished the contents, while I derived none of the advantage”. Mary was also to find herself in financial difficulties on more than one occasion.
Mary’s contribution to the growing sciences of palaeontology and geology was considerable. As well as finding numerous complete fossil remains, Mary’s skill was also in the cleaning and presenting of fossils which allowed thorough scientific analysis. She obviously took the study of fossils seriously, dissecting squid and cuttlefish to allow her to understand the anatomy of fossil cephalods. She discovered fossilised inks inside belemnite fossils which led to a publication by William Buckland of theories of defence of Jurassic belemnites. Similarly her investigations into the fossils known as ‘bezoar stones’ identified the fact there were in fact fossilised faeces, once again William Buckland published these findings although he did cite Mary Anning’s help in developing conclusions.
On her death in 1847 a tribute to Mary Anning was read out at the annual address of the Geological Society by Sir Henry De la Beche. It was an extraordinary honour for someone who not only was not a member of the society but also a woman.
Mary Anning was not only a woman in a man’s world but she was also self taught. Yet she was in contact and communication with many of the ‘established scientific community’, many of whom had a great respect for her understanding and skill, Sir Roderick Murchison referred to her as “the celebrated Mary Anning”. In 2010 Mary Anning was included when the Royal Society published a list of the ten most influential British women in the history of science. Finally getting the official recognition she richly deserved.
Written for Sheroes of History by Julia Carter.
Find out more….
The BBC’s Primary History page has a really cool, interactive guide all about Mary’s life. Find it here.
The Trowelblazers website is all about awesome women archeologists & paleontologists like Mary, check it out!
If you’re in the area you can visit Lyme Regis Museum and see some of Mary’s tools and her fossilized finds!
Check it out! Just this week Mary has had a new species of icthyosaur named after her! See more here.