by Ian Tattum
Mary Anning certainly did not sell sea shells on the sea shore, she sold snakestones (ammonites), verteberries (sections of petrified back bone) and eventually entire skeletons of primordial creatures, initially as a means to scraping a living and later as a scientific enterprise.
The false association between the pioneer fossil hunter from Lyme Regis and the famous tongue twister is an example of how Mary Anning’s achievement has often been diminished. There was nothing whimsical about a working-class woman who was only a child when she unearthed the first complete ichthyosaur skeleton, and who spent the rest of her life guiding and advising the men who turned geology and palaeontology into established academic subjects.
Mary Anning was born in Lyme in 1799. She was named after a sibling who had died tragically in a fire just five months earlier. Her father Richard was a cabinet maker, who subsidised his meagre income by collecting ‘curiosities’ from the fragile local cliffs and selling them to the visitors drawn to the newly fashionable spa town. Mary’s mother Molly was level headed and practical, and was to be a pillar in her life up until her death in 1842, just 5 years before Mary’s own.
Molly thought that Richard’s passion for collecting ‘curiosities’ was a distraction from his true trade and appallingly dangerous – as it was, being best done immediately after heavy rain when there was a great chance of further landslips. A fall on one of his expeditions probably contributed to his early death in 1810.
Immediately this dangerous hobby became a vital source of income to a family in dire financial straits, as visitors were willing to pay handsomely for the strange items that the Anning children were able to find. At that time, the objects they sold were chiefly valued for their reputed magical properties and their mysterious nature, but Mary was to witness and help to further a transformation in understanding about what they were and what they revealed about the distant past.
Just four years before she was born, Cuvier was arguing in Paris that the world was far older than had previously been conceived, and that skeletal remains discovered in the earth were from creatures long extinct. When she was five, the famous surgeon James Parkinson published a paper often claimed as the first scientific account of fossils – in his lifetime, Parkinson was better known for his radical politics, and as a pioneer of palaeontology, than for the disease he gave his name to. When Mary was nine years old, Parkinson and others founded the Geological Society of London.
It was in the summer of 1811, shortly after her twelfth birthday, that her brother Joseph discovered the skeletal head of what he thought to be a crocodile. Being too preoccupied with his apprenticeship to give it further attention, he left the search for the rest of the creature to his sister who, after months of looking, found it. Enlisting some local labourers to assist, she revealed to the world a baffling seventeen-foot-long creature that combined the characteristics of a fish, a lizard and a dolphin.
To the local lord of the manor, this was a must-have oddity and he promptly paid Mary £23 for it, temporarily lifting the family out of penury, but the discovery also came to the notice of the men of the new sciences who were eager to investigate it for themselves.
It is understandable that the male trailblazers of the new disciplines within what was then still called Natural Philosophy garnered most of the attention at the time. The Revd William Buckland, Reader in Minerology at Oxford, combined an insatiably curious intellect with a host of personal eccentricities such as an avowed inclination to eat himself through the entire animal kingdom, and it was he, along with the Revd William Conybeare, who had the social status and academic credentials to interpret and publicise such new finds. It was Conybeare indeed who, in 1821, co-wrote the seminal scientific paper which confirmed her creature’s unique mixture of characteristics and baptised it forever Ichthyosaurus. At the time, Mary’s age and humble background inevitably meant that she would get little credit for her initial discovery and until recent decades (in which she has found an increasing number of champions, including the late novelist John Fowles and her only biographer Shelley Emling), she has been treated as little more than a ‘curiosity’ herself: an odd footnote in the history of science.
Mary was not entirely voiceless: the commonplace book in which she collected her thoughts during her forties has survived. However, we have to carefully follow the traces left in the passing records of others to create a clear picture of her.
Her relationship with scholars like Buckland and Conybeare (and the others that followed) revealed her to be their collaborator and guide. Buckland, for example, first sought her out when she was only sixteen for fossil hunting expeditions, but he also listened to her opinions. One of the mysteries she helped to solve was that of the strange ‘bezoar stones’ named for their similarity to the gall stones of a kind of goat, which are now known as coprolites. Mary, finding them not only near to the skeletons she discovered, but inside them too, came to the logical conclusion that these were fossilised faeces, and Buckland publicly acknowledged that she had convinced him, against his original inclination, that such was the case.
In the years to come she introduced Louis Agassiz, the pioneer of glacial theory, to the variety of fossil fish and discussed the evidence for coastal change with Charles Lyell. She stood her ground when Cuvier doubted the authenticity of her Plesiosaur discovery on account of its seeming superfluity of neck vertebrae. When she came across a new fossil in 1829 which seemed to have ray-like characteristics, she promptly dissected a ray to confirm the facts for herself. This turned out to be her fourth major discovery, Squaloraja polyspondyla. Her third was the first pterodactyl found in Britain.
Gideon Mantell, the discoverer of the Iguanodon, left an account of meeting her which is often taken to be unflattering. He wrote about going ‘in quest of Mary Anning, the geological lioness of the place’, and finding her to be ‘prim, vinegar looking…shrewd and rather satirical in her conversation.’ This backhanded compliment is reflective of the way women, particularly lower class women, were often evaluated during this time. Her status, her seriousness and intelligence are rather begrudgingly acknowledged.
We are fortunate that we are given some clues about Mary’s inner life, thanks to the survival of part of her commonplace book produced when she was in her forties. Through the poems and quotations she collected, it is apparent that she was a person of feeling, who was deeply grieved by the death of her mother and found consolation in the religious faith which was always important to her, but there is also testimony to her thoughts on the status of women. Mary included an anonymous extract which could have come from the pen of Mary Wollstonecraft herself. Celebrating the prominence of women in the life of Christ, as followers and witnesses, it concludes,
‘Say then that woman sinks beneath the scorn of haughty man? No let her claim the hand of fellowship.’
There is no doubt that Mary bridled at the uneven nature of the fellowship she had with the ‘haughty men’ of science throughout her life, but her achievements were many and today she would surely be counted as a collaborator and and a brilliant exponent of citizen science. As I finished this article, I heard about a campaign to have a statue set up in Lyme Regis in her honour and read that a TV series about her life is in production. What with Tracy Chevalier’s 2009 novel Remarkable Creatures, I think Mary Anning’s reputation is now assured.
by Ian Tattum