Marry Anning and the Fossil Hunters


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Marry Anning and the Fossil Hunters

Despite the fact that Mary Anning's life has been made the subject of
several books and articles, comparatively little is known about her
life, and many people are unaware of her contributions to
palaeontology in its early days as a scientific discipline. How can
someone described as 'the greatest fossilist the world ever knew' be
so obscure that even many paleontologists are not aware of her
contribution? She was a woman in a man's England.

Mary Anning was born in 1799 to Richard and Mary Anning of Lyme Regis,
situated on the southern shores of Great Britain. The cliffs at Lyme
Regis were -- and still are -- rich in spectacular fossils from the
seas of the Jurassic period. Richard and Mary had as many as ten
children, but only two of these children, Mary and Joseph, reached
maturity. Richard was a cabinetmaker and occasional fossil collector.
Unfortunately, Richard died in 1810, leaving his family in debt
without a provider. He did, however, pass on his fossil hunting skills
to his wife and children, which later proved fortuitous for the
fledgling field of palaeontology.

The Anning family lived in poverty and anonymity, selling fossils from
Lyme Regis, until the early 1820s, when the profesional fossil
collector Lt.-Col. Thomas Birch came to know the family and
sympathized with their desperate financial situation. Birch decided to
hold an auction to sell off all of his fine fossil collection and
donate the proceeds to the Anning family. He felt that the Annings
should not live in such "considerable difficulty" considering that
they have "found almost all the fine things, which have been submitted
to scientific investigation...". Up to this point mother Mary was
running the business end of fossil collecting. By the middle of the
1820s, daughter Mary had established herself as the keen eye and
accomplished anatomist of the family, and began taking charge of the
family fossil business. Joseph was, by this time, committed to a
career in the upholstery business, and no longer collected fossils.

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Mary Anning has been credited with the first discovery of ichthyosaur
fossils. Although this is not entirely true, she did help to discover
the first specimen of Ichthyosaurus to be known by the scientific
community of London. This specimen was probably discovered sometime
between 1809 and 1811, when Mary was only 10 to 12 years old. And
while Mary did find the majority of the remains, her brother had
discovered part of the beast twelve months earlier. In fact, the
entire Anning family was involved in fossil hunting, but Mary's skill
and dedication produced many remarkable finds and thus provided the
fatherless family with a means of income. The fossils that Mary and
her family found and prepared were eagerly sought -- not only by
museums and scientists, but by European nobles, many of whom had
substantial private collections of fossils and other "curiosities."

Mary made many great discoveries, including the aforementioned
ichthyosaur and several other fine ichthyosaur skeletons. But perhaps
her most important find, from a scientific point of view, was her
discovery of the first plesiosaur. The famous French anatomist,
Georges Cuvier, doubted the validity of the specimen when he first
examined a detailed drawing. Once Cuvier realized that this was a
genuine find, the Annings became legitimate and respected fossilists
in the eyes of the scientific community.

In spite of this recognition, the majority of Mary's finds ended up in
museums and personal collections without credit being given to her as
the discoverer of the fossils. As time passed, Mary Anning and her
family were forgotten by the scientific community and most historians,
due to the lack of appropriate documentation of her special skills.
Contributing to the oversight of Mary Anning and her contribution to
paleontology was her social status and her gender. Many scientists of
the day could not believe that a young woman from such a deprived
background could posses the knowledge and skills that she seemed to
display. For example, in 1824, Lady Harriet Sivester, the widow of the
former Recorder of the City of London, wrote in her diary after
visiting Mary Anning:

". . . the extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she has
made herself 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."

Lady Sivester's praise is high, but note that "divine favour" is
invoked to explain how such a woman could possibly be so
knowledgeable. It is clear, however, that Anning was not only a
collector, but was well-versed in the scientific understanding of what
she collected, and won the respect of the scientists of her time. Her
discoveries were important in reconstructing the world's past and the
history of its life.

Mary Anning lived through a life of privation and hardship to become
what one source called "the greatest fossilist the world ever knew."
Anning is credited with finding the first specimen of Ichthyosaurus
acknowledged by the Geological Society in London. She also discovered
the first nearly complete example of the Plesiosaurus; the first
British Pterodactylus macronyx, a fossil flying reptile; the
Squaloraja fossil fish, a transitional link between sharks and rays;
and finally the Plesiosaurus macrocephalus.

Her history is incomplete and contradictory. Some accounts of her life
have been fictionalized, and her childhood discoveries have been
mythologized. She was a curiosity in her own time, bringing tourism to
her home town of Lyme Regis. Only her personal qualities and her long
experience brought her any recognition at all, since she was a woman,
of a lower social class, and from a provincial area at a time when
upper-class London men, gentlemanly scholars, received the bulk of the
credit for geological discoveries.

Anning learned to collect fossils from her father, Richard, a cabinet
maker by trade and a fossil collector by avocation. But he died at 44
in 1810, leaving his family destitute. They relied on charity to
survive.

Fossil collecting was a dangerous business in the seaside town. Anning
walked and waded under unstable cliffs at low tide, looking for
specimens dislodged from the rocks. During her teenage years, the
family built both a reputation and a business as fossil hunters. In
1817 they met Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Birch, a well-to-do fossil
collector who became a supporter of the family. He attributed major
discoveries in the area to them, and he arranged to sell his personal
collection of fossils for the family's benefit. Most of Anning's
fossils were sold to institutions and private collectors, but museums
tended to credit only people who donated the fossils to the
institution. Therefore, it has been difficult for historians to trace
many fossils that Mary Anning located; the best known are a small
Ichthyosaurus discovered in 1821 and the first Plesiosaurus, unearthed
in 1823.

Mary had some recognition for her intellectual mastery of the anatomy
of her subjects, from Lady Harriet Silvester, who visited Anning in
1824 and recorded in her diary:

the extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she had made
herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she
finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong. . . . by reading
and application she has arrived to that greater 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.

Visitors to Lyme increased as Anning won the respect of contemporary
scientists. In the last decade of her life she received an annuity
from the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1838).
The Geological Society of London collected a stipend for her and she
was named the first Honorary Member of the new Dorset County Museum,
one year before her death from breast cancer. Her obituary was
published in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society--an
organization that would not admit women until 1904.


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