If you were to ask me who my favourite paleontologist is, I’d be hard-pressed to answer it. I mean, sure, there is Stephen Jay Gould, but I know him better for his popular science writing than his actual research. Actually, I wouldn’t know who my favourite biologist in general is. David Attenborough perhaps, but again, his work is mostly in science education and not actual research. But so, for paleontologist, there is one person that I could name, if only by default: Mary Anning. I’ve always had a soft spot for underdogs (and cripples, bastards and broken things) and Miss Anning is one of those people who didn’t get all the recognition that they deserved, back in the past but even today she’s perhaps not as credited as she should be. You see, back then, in the early 19th century, Mary Anning was guilty of one of the greatest sins of them all, being a woman.
So when she couldn’t go to university, hold an official office or even vote, she had to spend her time in some other way, and help provide for her family. She did this by selling seashells (and other curiosities) by the sea-shore. And that’s even but half a joke, she is the actual inspiration for that famous phrase. It was her father who took her and her brother along on these fossil-hunts. They were “snake-stones”, “devil’s fingers” and “verteberries”. In actuality, these were ammonites, belemnites and vertebrae respectively. Back then, fossil collecting was on the rise, but mostly for rich white guys, without a scientific mindset. But partly due to the workings of Anning, the importance of fossils to geology and biology became much better understood and her contributions shifted towards the collections of the British Museum instead of display cases in huge manors.
Of course, not all the seashells by the sea-shore were mere seashore shells. While not actually part of the scientific community, Anning’s findings have been of tremendous value concerning paleontology. The fossil beds she collected from were sediments of the Jurassic era, so she did discover a few dinosaurs, along with large amounts of “less wondrous” things like fish fossils and belemnites. Up until then, many scientists were of the religious sort (Anning herself as well), so they never figured that, since new species didn’t appear, others could disappear. Extinction wasn’t a widely accepted phenomenon yet. That all changed when Mary Anning made a few discoveries.
It was her father who took her, along with her brother, to collect fossils and sell them to collectors. It was during one of these that her brother, Joseph, found the skull of an ichthyosaur, a species that had never been seen before. A few months later, Mary herself found the rest, making her the discoverer of the first complete ichthyosaur skeleton. This was also the first fossil that send ripples through the scientific community as this species just didn’t exist anymore, meaning that the notion of the Earth being only a few thousand years old was possibly completely wrong. Mary Anning was only 12 when she found the marine reptile (it’s not a dinosaur, mind you), so all of this went over her head. But she kept up her father’s business even after he died (from tuberculosis, and injuries from falling of a cliff) leading to many more important discoveries. Still, it wasn’t her main focus as the family was continuously in extreme poverty, almost having to sell their furniture to make the rent. Luckily, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas James Birch was one of those wealthy collectors with a kind heart. He had bought several fossils from Mary and her father already and knew about their dire situation. Because most of the specimens he had sent to paleontologists came from that family, he held an auction to their benefit. No one is sure if all the money raised actually went to Mary and her family, but it helped their financial security tremendously, as well as making Mary’s name known in the geological community.
Mary continued to search for fossils in the cliffs near Dorset, Southwest England. The work she did was not without its risks. She had to wait for landslides to uncover the fossil beds, a thing that happens mostly in winter due to rainfall. Then she had to work quickly before the fossils were swept into the sea. Of course, the landslides wouldn’t stop when she was running around. In 1833 she almost died in such a landslide. Her faithful companion, Tray, was not so lucky. He was her dog, a black-and-white terrier, and was always with her on her excursions, right up until that faithful day. But she never quit.
Her main income came from selling ammonite and belemnite fossils as these were most abundant. Though seemingly more trivial, she did discover traces of ink sacs in the belemnites, meaning these were related to modern cephalopods like the octopus. She also figured out that the so-called bezoar stones found in the fossil beds aren’t bezoars at all, but coprolites, aka fossilised droppings. Her bigger discoveries, after that of the ichthyosaur in her youth, was the first complete Plesiosaurus and the first British pterosaur (another was found in Germany before). During her work she kept studying any scientific literature she could get her hands on. Despite not being allowed to attend university, she was easily on par with official scientists, and knew much more about fossils than most people she sold them to. Her reputation kept growing and growing, leading to an even more stable financial situation. Many people were praising her, commending her insight, intelligence and calling her extraordinary. Her fossil collecting grew prosperous enough for her to open a genuine shop in Lyme Regis, “Anning’s Fossil Depot”. Still, the (relatively new) Geological Society of London wasn’t very keen on her being a woman. She was never allowed to become a member or even be a guest. While her findings were always eagerly accepted, very few ‘gentlemen’ scholars actually credited her for the finds. Sure enough, this was true for most working class people who sold their findings to the Society, but the importance of Mary Anning’s contributions was insane, as well Anning’s own insights. Mary became rather resentful of this ousting, rightfully so. Anna Piney, a friend of hers, 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.”
She did make a few friends however, including Henry De la Beche, who became the first President of the Palaeontographical Society. William Buckland was another, and not an insignificant name. Even Charles Lyell wrote to her, asking her opinion on how the sea was affecting the coastal cliffs around Lyme. One of her earliest customers was Adam Sedgwick, one of the founders of modern geology and tutor to Charles Darwin, though an opponent of the latter’s theory of evolution. Still, despite the recognition of many of her more important peers, her name isn’t on as many discoveries as it should be, at least at the time.
Mary Anning’s life had somewhat of an unfortunate ending. By 1830, Britain was in economic distress, leaving the fossil business a bit dry. She also failed at making new major discoveries, setting her back financially. With some new findings and intervention from her friends, her situation had its ups and downs for a few years. It was thanks to William Buckland she received a small pension per year to help her sustain herself, finally getting herself some stability for the rest of her days. Mary died in 1847 from breast cancer. She was 47. She got her own stained-glass window in the Saint Michael’s Church of Lyme Regis, paid for by members of the Geological Society. Henry De la Beche wrote her an eulogy and published it in the quarterly transaction of the Society, the first ever for a woman (the Society still didn’t admit women until 1904). “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 of the great Enalio-Saurians, and other forms of organic life entombed in the vicinity of Lyme Regis …”
A few years later Charles Dickens wrote about her in his “All the Year Round” (February 1865 edition), telling about the difficulties she had to face and overcome, just like I tried to do here to you. He, being the masterful writer he is, does tend to end his articles a bit better. He wrote “The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.”
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