Mary Anning

Mary Anning

(1799-1847)

DJ Name: Amping up Anning

When you think of paleontologists, who’s the first person you think of? For us, it’s Ross Geller. Obviously. But long before Ross graced our screens with dorky witticisms and a love for dinosaurs, Mary Anning dug around in the dirt in England, searching for fossils that many say led to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Mary made many important contributions in the bone-finding world, but because she was a lady in a predominantly men’s profession, she wasn’t always given the recognition she deserved. But that’s about to change, now that Historic Shuffle, a Very Influential Blog, has gotten hold of her story (thanks for the rec, Trevor). So shuffle up these tunes that Mary listened to while cleaning fossils, and let’s excavate the facts of her life. In her own words, “Let’s get fosSILLY”: 

Mary Anning was born on May 21, 1799, in Lyme Regis, located in the southwest English county of Dorset. That area is now part of what’s called the Jurassic Coast, England’s only natural World Heritage site. The Jurassic Coast might not have any dinos roaming its coasts today (or maybe it does…who’s to say…), but it’s a massively diverse landscape that encompasses distinct features of three geological time periods: Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous, AKA the Mesozoic Era, which occurred about 250 to 65 million years ago (woah). And if you wanna channel your inner Mary Anning, you can still go to the Jurassic Coast today and dig around for some fossils of your own. Just think! Maybe you’ll find a never-before-discovered turtle species! (this post is #sponsored by #Jurassic #Coast and it does not assume any liability in you not discovering a new turtle species).

Anyway, Mary’s family were religious dissenters — meaning that they were Protestants who separated from the church of England — and they were very poor. Mary’s parents, Richard (a cabinetmaker and an amateur fossil collector) and Mary Moore (though she went by Molly) (no profession or hobbies listed) had 10 children but only Mary and her older brother Joseph survived into adulthood. Luckily, Richard’s hobby turned a profit for the family, and they relied on selling fossils that he collected from the seaside cliffs to tourists as a source of income. As the saying goes, the family who fossil finds together, stays together. When she was about five years old, Richard started bringing li’l Mary along to frolic and find fossils. It was pretty unheard of at the time for girls to participate in such an activity, and though Mary had little formal education, she could read and she taught herself geometry and anatomy. Casual. We could not be taught geometry even in a year-long classroom setting. 

Time for a side story, which is part of Lyme Regis local lore, but who knows if it’s true: When Mary was 15 months old, the family’s neighbor, Elizabeth Haskings, was holding Mary and standing under an elm tree with a couple of other women. Suddenly, lightning struck the tree and all women standing under it died. Onlookers rushed her baby Mary home and they succeeded in reviving her in a tub of hot water. Mary’s fam said she had been a sickly baby leading up the event, but after that she was just fine. A local doctor called her return to the living world “miraculous.” We call it “preposterous, but OK, ‘tis a dope story.” As she developed into a tenacious child, Mary’s curiosity, intelligence and lively personality were attributed to her near-death experience. 

OK, back to Mary’s life as a growing girl. In 1810, when Mary was 11, Richard passed away suddenly from tuberculosis and previous injuries, and the family lost its income. Besides relying on charity from the community, Mary supplemented the family by selling her fossil finds. Luckily for Mary, fossils were quite fashionable in this era. Tourists came from far and wide to purchase shells n’ stuff to add to their collections. In 1811, when she was 12, Joseph unearthed a fossilized skull that they’d never before seen. Mary continued to search around the area, and she ultimately dug out the outline of a 17-foot-long skeleton. Like the Mary who produced “Frankenstein,” this Mary had also found herself a monster. 

Or… at least that’s what the townsfolk believed. Scientists, on the other hand, thought she’d found a crocodile. Crocodiles are found in the tropics, and if you’ve ever been to England you know that, though it certainly rains a lot there, it ain’t exactly the tropics. Back then, when ~mysterious~ remnants of dead creatures turned up, the assumption was that the creature had wandered away from its homeland. The theory of extinction had only recently been put forward by Papa Paleontologist Georges Cuvier, so the ideas surrounding this skeleton were fairly limited. What she’d really found was a Ichthyosaurus communis, meaning a “fish lizard,” and it lived about 200 million years ago. We now know that it was neither fish nor lizard, but rather a marine reptile. #science 

Henry Roste Henley paid the family 23 pounds for it (which equates to about $2,500 in today’s American cash money), and he in turn sold it to William Bullock, a well-known collector, who displayed it in London. People marveled at the majestic find, especially since most people were married to the idea of the creation story put forth in the Bible. Seeing this fossil in the flesh challenged the idea that the Earth was only a couple thousand years old, and that perhaps other species had been around loooong before Adam gave Eve a rib

By 1817, her findings had attracted the attention of Thomas Birch, a big-time fossil collector. He bought a bunch of Mary’s specimens, which helped the family financially. He took a liking to the family and was disturbed by their poverty, and he also auctioned off his own fossil collection and donated the proceeds to the Anning fam. Thanks to the support, the Annings were able to keep their heads above water and Mary could continue her work. Her main finds were invertebrate fossils AKA shell species and they sold for some shillings, but the big bucks came from vertebrate fossils. However, with bigger bucks came bigger risk. The search for vertebrate skeletons was dangerous winter work that involved scaling cliffs, surviving chilly temperatures and avoiding landslides that revealed new fossils. She had another near-death experience, though, when she *just* avoided a landslide. Sadly, her trusty puppy pal, Tray, passed away as he got caught up in that same landslide that she just barely escaped. Mary continued to take to the coast and the cliffs day in and day out. She had major back-to-back finds in the mid-to-late 1820s. First she uncovered the complete Plesiosaurus. The news spread quickly and so, too, did rumors that it was a fake find. Papa Paleontologist Georges Cuvier even disputed the find, and later admitted to this mistake. Then in 1828, Mary found the first British example of a flying reptile called the Pterosaurs (AKA “Flying Dragon”), and a year later found the Squaloraja fish skeleton. Mary was on a roll, digging up dirt and dusting off bones.

And, let’s also remember that she was self-educated. So while the ~men~ of the science world didn’t invite her to conferences or initially believe how successful she was at finding shells n’ stuff, she continued to out-read, out-dig and out-discover them. And in return, they bought her bones. Oftentimes, Mary’s social status and gender deterred her from receiving the recognition she deserved (#rude). The future wasn’t yet female in the fossil world, nor was Britain inclusive of women because during this time women in Britain couldn’t vote, hold public office or go to college to get more knowledge. Typically women were working in newly opened factories, on the farm or in the home. And, back to Mary’s world specifically, the Geological Society of London didn’t allow women to become members or attend meetings. 

Still, Mary successfully continued on with her career in the science world even though she wasn’t respected. To increase her understanding of the evolution of bone structure, Mary even dissected modern animals such as fish species. Evolution never sleeps. With the money she saved selling fossils, Mary purchased a home for herself with a glass store-front window for her shop, Reptile Apothecary Anning’s Fossil Depot. The opening of her business made front page news of the local paper, and she made sure to have the finest ichthyosaur skeleton on display. She was referred to as, “a very clever creature” by many a geologist and fossil collector who traveled far and wide from all around Europe to see and purchase her goods. Oftentimes, her finds were bought and then displayed in museums such as the New York Lyceum of Natural History. King Fredereick Augustus II of Saxony even visited her shop and bought some bones. 

Mary was a barrier breaker by starting her own business. Still, though, she didn’t receive the respect she deserved as many a gentleman geologist “forgot to mention” her name in publications they wrote that were typically about fossils she found. Credit wasn’t given where credit was due, and that really amped up Anning. Her bff Jill Anna said, “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.” Nevertheless, she continued to accompany visiting geologists and paleontologists and scientists and other “ists” on excursions to find fossils and #justsciencethings. Often, she was the one to lead the fossil hunts, and made many scientific suggestions that were considered genius. Her network of European fossil finders grew with every visit, and specifically took off when Robert Murchison, a geologist, came to Lyme to do some fieldwork and brought along his wife, Charlotte. Charlotte learned the fossil-finding ropes from Mary, and when Rob and Charlotte departed home, Charlotte continued to stay in touch with Mary to help her build her network of customers throughout all of Europe. In 1829, Mary even visited London and stayed with the Murchisons #fossilfriends. 

Throughout the 1830s, Mary continued to make fossil finds, but also ebbed and flowed through periods of success and financial difficulty. During a tough patch, her supportive pal, Henry De la Beche, commissioned a lithographic print of one of his watercolor paintings called Duria Antiquior, which portrayed life in prehistoric Dorset that was based on fossils Mary found. Copies were sold to fellow geologists and wealthy friends, and proceeds were donated to Mary. As Mary aged, her work began to slow even more as she fell ill. Sadly, Mary Anning passed away from breast cancer at the age of 49 on March 9, 1847. In his eulogy, Henry De la Beche said, “I cannot close this notice of our losses by death without adverting to that of one, who though not placed among even the easier classes of society, but one who had to earn her daily bread by her labour, yet contributed by her talents and untiring researches in no small degree to our knowledge.” She is buried at St. Michael the Archangel Church in Lyme Regis, and three years after her death, a stained-glass window paid for by the Geological Society was installed in the Church in her memory. Mary’s contributions to the male-dominated fossil-finding world were oft-overlooked during her lifetime, but over the centuries since her passing, Mary’s important contributions in the bone-finding world are an inspiration for those who set out to find the next big bone breakthrough. 

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