Mary Anning: Regency Paleontologist
“[T]he carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.”
Mary Anning (21 May 1799 – 9 March 1847) was a British fossil collector, dealer, and paleontologist who became known around the world for a number of important finds she made in the Jurassic marine fossil beds at Lyme Regis in Dorset, where she lived. Her work contributed to fundamental changes that occurred during her lifetime in scientific thinking about prehistoric life and the history of the Earth.
Anning searched for fossils in the area’s Blue Lias cliffs, particularly during the winter months when landslides exposed new fossils that had to be collected quickly before they were lost to the sea. It was dangerous work, and she nearly lost her life in 1833 during a landslide that killed her dog, Tray. Her discoveries included the first ichthyosaur skeleton to be correctly identified, which she and her brother Joseph found when she was just twelve years old; the first two plesiosaur skeletons ever found; the first pterosaur skeleton located outside Germany; and some important fish fossils. Her observations played a key role in the discovery that coprolites, known as bezoar stones at the time, were fossilised faeces. She also discovered that belemnite fossils contained fossilised ink sacs like those of modern cephalopods. When geologist Henry De la Beche painted Duria Antiquior, the first widely circulated pictorial representation of a scene from prehistoric life derived from fossil reconstructions, he based it largely on fossils Anning had found, and sold prints of it for her benefit.
Anning was born in Lyme Regis in Dorset, England. Her father, Richard, was a cabinetmaker who supplemented his income by mining the coastal cliff-side fossil beds near the town, and selling his finds to tourists. He married Mary Moore, known as Molly, on 8 August 1793 in Blandford Forum. The couple moved to Lyme and lived in a house built on the town’s bridge. They attended the Dissenter chapel on Coombe Street, whose worshippers initially called themselves independents and later, became known as Congregationalists. Shelley Emling writes that the family lived so close to the sea that the same storms that swept along the cliffs to reveal the fossils sometimes flooded the Annings’ home, on one occasion forcing them to crawl out of an upstairs bedroom window to avoid being drowned.
Richard and Molly had ten children. The first child Mary was born in 1794. She was followed by another girl, who died almost at once; Joseph in 1796; and another son in 1798, who died in infancy. In December that year the oldest child, then four years old, died after her clothes caught fire, possibly whilst adding wood shavings to the fire.The incident was reported in the Bath Chronicle on 27 December 1798: “A child, four years of age of Mr. R. Anning, a cabinetmaker of Lyme, was left by the mother for about five minutes … in a room where there were some shavings … The girl’s clothes caught fire and she was so dreadfully burnt as to cause her death.” When another daughter was born just five months later, she was named Mary after her dead sister. More children were born after her, but none of them survived more than a couple of years. Only Mary and Joseph survived to adulthood. The high childhood mortality rate for the Anning family was not that unusual. Almost half the children born in Britain throughout the 19th century died before the age of 5, and in the crowded living conditions of early 19th century Lyme Regis, infant deaths from diseases like small pox and measles were particularly common.
On 19 August 1800, when Anning was 15 months old, an event occurred that became part of local lore; she was being held by a neighbour, Elizabeth Haskings, who was standing with two other women under an elm tree watching an equestrian show, being put on by a travelling company of horsemen, when lightning struck the tree. The three women were killed, but onlookers rushed the infant home, where she was revived in a bath of hot water.A local doctor declared her survival miraculous, and her family said that she had been a sickly baby before the event, but that subsequently, she seemed to blossom. For years afterward members of her community would attribute the child’s curiosity, intelligence, and lively personality to the incident.
Her education was extremely limited. She was able to attend a Congregationalist Sunday school where she learned to read and write. Congregationalist doctrine, unlike that of the Church of England at the time, emphasised the importance of education for the poor. Her prized possession was a bound volume of the Dissenters’ Theological Magazine and Review, in which the family’s pastor, the Reverend James Wheaton, had published two essays, one insisting that God had created the world in six days, the other urging dissenters to study the new science of geology.
By the late 18th century Lyme Regis had become a popular seaside resort, especially after 1792 when the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars made travel to the European mainland dangerous for the English gentry, and increasing numbers of wealthy and middle class tourists were arriving there. Even before Mary’s time locals supplemented their income by selling what were called “curios” to visitors. These were fossils with colourful local names such as “snake-stones” (ammonites), “devil’s fingers” (belemnites), and “verteberries” (vertebrae), to which were sometimes attributed medicinal and mystical properties. Fossil collecting was in vogue in the late 18th and early 19th century, at first as a pastime, but gradually transforming into a science as the importance of fossils to geology and biology was understood.
The source of most of these fossils was the coastal cliffs around Lyme Regis, part of a geological formation known as the Blue Lias. This consists of alternating layers of limestone and shale, laid down as sediment on a shallow seabed early in the Jurassic period (about 210–195 million years ago). It is one of the richest fossil locations in Britain. The cliffs could be dangerously unstable, however, especially in winter when rain caused landslides. It was precisely during the winter months that collectors were drawn to the cliffs because the landslides often exposed new fossils.
Their father, Richard, often took Mary and Joseph on fossil-hunting expeditions to make more money for the family. They offered their discoveries for sale to tourists on a table outside their home. This was a difficult time for England’s poor; the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars that followed caused food shortages. The price of wheat almost tripled between 1792 and 1812, but wages for the working class remained almost unchanged. In Dorset the rising price of bread caused political unrest, even riots. At one point Richard Anning was involved in organising a protest against food shortages.
In addition the family’s religious views as dissenters—not followers of the Church of England—attracted further discrimination. Dissenters were not allowed into universities or the army, and were excluded by law from several professions.When her father died in November 1810 (aged 44) he had been suffering from tuberculosis and injuries he suffered from a fall off a cliff— he left the family with no savings and a significant amount of debt, forcing them to apply for parish relief.
The family continued collecting and selling fossils together, and set up a table of curiosities near the coach stop at a local inn. Although the stories about Anning tend to focus on her successes, Dennis Dean writes that her mother and brother were astute collectors too, and her parents had sold significant fossils before the father’s death.
Their first well-known find was in 1811, when Mary was 12; Joseph dug up a 4-foot ichthyosaur skull and a few months later, Mary found the rest of the skeleton. Henry Hoste Henley of Sandringham, Norfolk, who was lord of the manor of Colway, near Lyme Regis, paid the family about £23 for it, and in turn he sold it to William Bullock, a well-known collector, who displayed it in London. There it generated considerable interest, because at a time when most people in England still believed in the Biblical account of creation, which implied that the Earth was only a few thousand years old, it raised questions about the history of living things and of the Earth itself. It was later sold for £45 and five shillings at auction in May 1819 as a “Crocodile in a Fossil State” to Charles Konig, of the British Museum, who had already suggested the name Ichthyosaurus for it.
Mary’s mother Molly, initially ran the fossil business after Richard’s death but it is unclear how much actual fossil collecting she did herself. As late as 1821 she wrote to the British Museum to request payment for a specimen. Joseph’s time was increasingly taken up by his apprenticeship to an upholsterer, but he remained active in the fossil business until at least 1825. By that time Mary had assumed the leading role in the family business.
Anning continued to support herself selling fossils. Her primary stock in trade consisted of invertebrate fossils such as ammonite and belemnite shells, which were common in the area and sold for a few shillings. Vertebrate fossils, such as ichthyosaur skeletons, sold for more, but were much rarer. Collecting them was dangerous winter work. In 1823, an article in The Bristol Mirror said of her:
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, whose fallen masses are her immediate object, as they alone contain these valuable relics of a former world, which must be snatched at the moment of their fall, at the continual risk of being crushed by the half suspended fragments they leave behind, or be left to be destroyed by the returning tide: – to her exertions we owe nearly all the fine specimens of Ichthyosauri of the great collections …
The risks of her profession were illustrated when on October 1833 she barely avoided being killed by a landslide that buried her black-and-white terrier, Tray, her constant companion when she went collecting. She wrote to a friend, Charlotte Murchison, in November that year: “Perhaps you will laugh when I say that the death of my old faithful dog has quite upset me, the cliff that fell upon him and killed him in a moment before my eyes, and close to my feet … it was but a moment between me and the same fate.”
As Anning continued to make important finds, her reputation grew. On 10 December 1823, she found the first complete Plesiosaurus, and in 1828 the first British example of the flying reptiles known as pterosaurs, called a flying dragon when it was displayed at the British Museum, followed by a Squaloraja fish skeleton in 1829. Despite her limited education, she read as much of the scientific literature as she could obtain, and often, laboriously hand-copied papers borrowed from others. Palaeontologist Christopher McGowan examined a copy she made of an 1824 paper by William Conybeare on marine reptile fossils and noted that the copy included several pages of her detailed technical illustrations that he was hard pressed to tell apart from the original. She also dissected modern animals including both fish and cuttlefish to gain a better understanding of the anatomy of some of the fossils with which she was working. Lady Harriet Silvester, the widow of the former Recorder of the City of London, visited Lyme in 1824, and described Anning in her diary:
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.
In 1826, at the age of 27, Anning managed to save enough money to purchase a home with a glass store-front window for her shop, Anning’s Fossil Depot. The business had become important enough that the move was covered in the local paper, which noted that the shop had a fine ichthyosaur skeleton on display. Many geologists and fossil collectors from Europe and America visited Anning at Lyme, including the geologist George William Featherstonhaugh, who called Anning a “very clever funny Creature.” He purchased fossils from her for the newly opened New York Lyceum of Natural History in 1827. King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony visited her shop in 1844 and purchased an ichthyosaur skeleton for his extensive natural history collection. The king’s physician and aide, Carl Gustav Carus, wrote in his journal:
We had alighted from the carriage and were proceeding on foot, when we fell in with a shop in which the most remarkable petrifications and fossil remains—the head of an Ichthyosaurus—beautiful ammonites, etc. were exhibited in the window. We entered and found the small shop and adjoining chamber completely filled with fossil productions of the coast … I found in the shop a large slab of blackish clay, in which a perfect Ichthyosaurus of at least six feet, was embedded. This specimen would have been a great acquisition for many of the cabinets of natural history on the Continent, and I consider the price demanded, £15 sterling, as very moderate.
Carus asked Anning to write her name and address in his pocketbook for future reference—she wrote it as “Mary Annins”—and when she handed it back to him she told him: “I am well known throughout the whole of Europe.”As time passed, Anning’s confidence in her knowledge grew, and in 1839 she wrote to the Magazine of Natural History to question the claim made in an article, that a recently discovered fossil of the prehistoric shark Hybodus represented a new genus, as an error since she had discovered the existence of fossil sharks with both straight and hooked teeth many years ago. The extract from the letter that the magazine printed was the only writing of Anning’s published in the scientific literature during her lifetime. Some personal letters written by her, such as her correspondence with Frances Augusta Bell, were published while she was alive, however.
As a working-class woman, Anning was an outsider to the scientific community. At the time in Britain women were not allowed to vote (neither were men too poor to meet the property requirement), hold public office, or attend university. The newly formed, but increasingly influential Geological Society of London did not allow women to become members, or even to attend meetings as guests.The only occupations generally open to working-class women were farm labour, domestic service, and work in the newly opening factories.
Although Anning knew more about fossils and geology than many of the wealthy fossilists to whom she sold, it was always the gentlemen geologists who published the scientific descriptions of the specimens she found, often neglecting to mention her name. She became resentful of this. Anna Pinney, a young woman who sometimes accompanied Anning while she collected, wrote: “She says the world has used her ill … 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.” Torrens writes that these slights to Anning were part of a larger pattern of ignoring the contributions of working-class people in early-19th-century scientific literature. Often a fossil would be found by a quarryman, construction worker, or road worker who would sell it to a wealthy collector, and it was the latter who was credited if the find was of scientific interest.
Along with purchasing specimens, many geologists visited her to collect fossils or discuss anatomy and classification. Henry De la Beche and Anning became friends as teenagers following his move to Lyme, and he, Mary, and sometimes Mary’s brother Joseph, went fossil-hunting together. De la Beche and Anning kept in touch as he became one of Britain’s leading geologists. William Buckland, who lectured on geology at the University of Oxford, often visited Lyme on his Christmas vacations and was frequently seen hunting for fossils with Anning. It was to him she made what would prove to be the scientifically-important suggestion that the strange conical objects known as bezoar stones, were really the fossilised faeces of ichthyosaurs or plesiosaurs. Buckland would name the objects coprolites. In 1839 Buckland, Conybeare, and Richard Owen visited Lyme together so that Anning could lead them all on a fossil-collecting excursion.
She also assisted Thomas Hawkins with his efforts to collect ichthyosaur fossils at Lyme in the 1830s. She was aware of his penchant to “enhance” the fossils he collected. She wrote: “he is such an enthusiast that he makes things as he imagines they ought to be; and not as they are really found…”. A few years later there was a public scandal when it was discovered that Hawkins had inserted fake bones to make some ichthyosaur skeletons seem more complete, and later sold them to the government for the British Museum’s collection without the appraisers knowing about the additions.
The Swiss palaeontologist Louis Agassiz visited Lyme in 1834 and worked with Anning to obtain and study fish fossils found in the region. He was so impressed by her and her friend Elizabeth Philpot that he wrote in his journal: “Miss Philpot and Mary Anning have been able to show me with utter certainty which are the icthyodorulites dorsal fins of sharks that correspond to different types.” He thanked both of them for their help in his book, Studies of Fossil Fish.
Another leading British geologist, Roderick Murchison, did some of his first field work in southwest England, including Lyme, accompanied by his wife, Charlotte. Murchison wrote that they decided Charlotte should stay behind in Lyme for a few weeks to “become a good practical fossilist, by working with the celebrated Mary Anning of that place…”. Charlotte and Anning became lifelong friends and correspondents. Charlotte, who travelled widely and met many prominent geologists through her work with her husband, helped Anning build her network of customers throughout Europe, and Anning stayed with the Murchisons when she visited London in 1829.
Gideon Mantell, discoverer of the dinosaur Iguanodon, also visited her at her shop.
Anning’s correspondents included Charles Lyell, who wrote her to ask her opinion on how the sea was affecting the coastal cliffs around Lyme, as well as, Adam Sedgwick—one of her earliest customers—who taught geology at the University of Cambridge and who numbered Charles Darwin among his students.
By 1830, because of difficult economic conditions in Britain that reduced the demand for fossils, coupled with long gaps between major finds, Anning was having financial problems again. Her friend the geologist Henry De la Beche assisted her by commissioning Georg Scharf to make a lithographic print based on De la Beche’s watercolour painting, Duria Antiquior, portraying life in prehistoric Dorset that was largely based on fossils Anning had found. De la Beche sold copies of the print to his fellow geologists and other wealthy friends and donated the proceeds to her. It became the first such scene from what later became known as deep time to be widely circulated. In December 1830 she finally made another major find, a skeleton of a new type of plesiosaur, which sold for £200.
It was around this time that she switched from attending the local Congregational church, where she had been baptised and, in which she and her family had always been active members, to the Anglican church. The change was prompted in part by a decline in Congregational attendance that began in 1828 when its popular pastor, John Gleed, a fellow fossil collector, left for the United States to campaign against slavery. He was replaced by the less likeable, Ebenezer Smith. The greater social respectability of the established church, in which some of Anning’s gentleman geologist customers such as Buckland, Conybeare, and Sedgwick were ordained clergy, was also a factor. Anning, who was devoutly religious, actively supported her new church as she had her old.
She suffered another serious financial setback in 1835 when she lost most of her life savings, about £300, in a bad investment. Sources differ somewhat on what exactly went wrong. Deborah Cadbury says that she invested with a conman who swindled her and disappeared with the money,but Shelley Emling writes that is not clear whether the man ran off with the money or whether he died suddenly leaving Anning with no way to recover the investment. Concerned about her financial situation, her old friend William Buckland persuaded the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the British government to award her an annuity, known as a civil list pension, in return for her many contributions to the science of geology. The £25 annual pension gave her a certain amount of financial security.
Anning died from breast cancer at the age of 47 on 9 March 1847. Her work had tailed off during the last few years of her life because of her illness, and as some townspeople misinterpreted the effects of the increasing doses of laudanum she was taking for the pain, there had been gossip in Lyme that she had a drinking problem. The regard in which she was held by the geological community was shown in 1846 when, upon learning of her cancer diagnosis, the Geological Society raised money from its members to help with her expenses and the council of the newly created Dorset County Museum made her an honorary member. She was buried on 15 March in the churchyard of St. Michael’s, the local parish church. Members of the Geological Society contributed to a stained-glass window in her memory, unveiled in 1850. It depicts the six corporate acts of mercy—feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting prisoners and the sick, and the inscription reads: “This window is sacred to the memory of Mary Anning of this parish, who died 9 March AD 1847 and is erected by the vicar and some members of the Geological Society of London in commemoration of her usefulness in furthering the science of geology, as also of her benevolence of heart and integrity of life.”
After her death, Henry De la Beche, president of the Geological Society, wrote a eulogy that he read to a meeting of the society and published in its quarterly transactions, the first such eulogy given for a woman. These were honours normally only accorded to fellows of the society, which did not admit women until 1904. The eulogy began:
“I cannot close this notice of our losses by death without advertising 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 of the great Enalio-Saurians, and other forms of organic life entombed in the vicinity of Lyme Regis …”
Charles Dickens wrote an article about her life in February 1865 in his literary magazine All the Year Round that emphasised the difficulties she had overcome, especially the scepticism of her fellow townspeople. He ended the article with: “The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it