Mary Anning: A Genius Incognito-ed

by Aakash Sharma
Mary Anning: A Genius Incognito-ed

December 20, 2020

Discovering the genius of the mother of palaeontology

Curiosity Mars rover recently sent an impressive ‘selfie’ to the scientists at NASA. This is from a location named ‘Mary Anning, after the 19th-century English paleontologist who has, for centuries, gone by unacknowledged and unheeded for her breakthrough work in marine-reptile fossils. Scientists on the Curiosity team thought it fitting to name the sampling site after Anning because of the area’s potential to reveal details about the ancient environment.

Long Overdue Mainstream Recognition

In October of 2020, a book titled The Fossil Woman, written by Tom Sharpe, also came out, detailing the life of Mary Anning as the ‘greatest fossilist the world ever knew.’ In the same month, Ammonite, a romantic drama film inspired by the life of Mary Anning, was released. The film is scripted and directed by Francis Lee and stars Kate Winslet as Mary Anning.

With these mainstream ratifications coming in after almost 170 years of her death, it is about time we knew who Mary Anning was and why it took nearly two centuries for her recognition.

Partial skeleton of a young ichthyosaur with stomach contents from the Lower Jurassic of Lyme Regis. Collected by Mary Anning at some time before 1836.

Story of Mary Anning

Born 21 May 1799 in Southwest England, Mary Anning was an English fossil collector and dealer, who is now being recognized as one of the ‘first paleontologists’ to have unearthed the Jurassic marine fossil beds in the English Channel at Lyme Regis, England. She regularly risked her life searching for fossils, making findings that captured the focus of the scientific superiors, even though her social class and gender meant she could never receive the credit she deserved. Anning’s conclusions have since contributed to tectonic changes in scientific thinking about prehistoric life and Earth’s history.

She was born to a low cabinet maker in Lyme Regis, who occasionally dug out fossils and sold them to tourists to earn some extra money. Anning accompanied her father in his fossil hunts and loved strolling across the beach and cliffs. This childhood excursion and dire need to earn some cash sparked Anning’s interest in bones and fossils, which eventually made her a paleontology pioneer.

the 19th century feminine fossilists who became the jurrasic period expert 1050
Letter from Mary Anning concerning the discovery of plesiosaurus via Wikimedia Commons

Outstanding Feats By Anning

Mary Anning is heralded for the discoveries she made in the 1800s, revealing a previously unknown world of extinct reptiles that turned the knowledge about life on Earth on its head. In 1811, a year after her father’s death and at just 12, Anning found a 5.2m (17ft) skeleton, now known as the ichthyosaur. It was this skeleton that helped propel her into the history books.

Paddy Howe, a geologist at Lyme Regis Museum, says, “At this time, geology and paleontology were developing sciences – just coming into their own. We know about ichthyosaur skeleton from the 1600s, but it was the first one to be analyzed by scientists only after Mary’s discovery; it was essential.”

Twelve years later, she found the first full skeleton of a plesiosaur, a marine reptile so bizarre that scientists at the time thought it was a fake. This particular fossil became a holotype, meaning that this specimen is used to describe the whole species- scientists still refer to it today when studying plesiosaurs. She also discovered the UK’s first known remains of a pterosaur, believed to be the largest-ever flying animal.

After this, scientists started to take her finds more seriously and sought to look at her discoveries and discuss ideas. Anning became popular in geological circles in Britain, Europe, and America and was consulted on issues of anatomy and collecting fossils.

The Price of Being a Woman

Despite Anning’s growing reputation, societal norms meant she would never be accepted into the elite scientific community. When the Geological Society met to discuss whether the plesiosaur was genuine, she was not even invited- women were not admitted there until the 20th Century.

At the time, the notion of extinction, which was the core of Anning’s work, was relatively new to science, and the ‘otherworldly’ creatures that she unearthed became a topic of debate for many years. Her discovery of strange and unique fossils was evidence of the highly controversial theory of extinction. The religious institutions questioned why ‘God’ would let a species die out in oblivion.

As the explorer of unconventional relics, a dissenter, and a woman, Anning was not even considered a serious paleontologist, let alone for her participation in the scientific community of 19th-century Britain, which mainly comprised of the English gentry. Prohibited by her class and gender, she never received the credit for her discoveries in her own life, and this deliberate out-casting amounted to her lifelong financial struggles.

Mary's Dismay For the Patriarchal World

Emphatically, Anning wrote in a letter, “The world has used me so unkindly; I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone.” None of her discoveries and scientific writings ever got published with due credits in her lifetime, except for an extract of a letter she wrote to the editor of Magazine of Natural History in 1839, questioning one of its claims.

Activist and award-winning playwright Anya Pearson says, “Mary Anning was three things you didn’t want to be in 19th-century Britain – she was a woman, working-class and poor”. Pearson is campaigning for a statue to be made in Anning’s honor.

Anning’s was a time when even the rich and educated women were confined in their rights to exercise their mental faculties. And despite her difficult social and financial life, Anning was able to attain so many incredible feats. Ammonite director Francis Lee rightly remarked in an interview- “Anning’s life was scarred by hardship and tragedy but also punctuated by scientific firsts.”

Kate Winslet as Mary Anning in Ammonite
Kate Winslet as Mary Anning in the 2020 film 'Ammonite'

Reparations in Recognition

More than 170 years after her demise, Anning’s story has begun to be taught in schools, recognized as the pioneer of paleontology, and embraced as an inspirational icon in the scientific community. In 2010, 163 years post her death, the Royal Society added her to a list of the ten British women who have most impacted science history. A campaign, supported by Sir David Attenborough, is underway to erect a statue in her honor.

It has often been said that Anning’s story was the inspiration for the tongue-twister “she sells seashells on the seashore“. Nonetheless, it would have been the closest the world ever came to acknowledge the genius that was Mary Anning.

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