It has been suggested (twice QnPoohBear, cough, cough) that we talk about some real life heroines in the nineteenth century, young ladies who distinguished themselves in the sciences, arts, or other areas. I can think of no one finer to inaugurate this series than Mary Anning.
Mary was born in 1799 in Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast of England. Her father Richard was a cabinetmaker by trade, but he loved to spend his free time collecting fossils and he took Mary and her older brother Joseph with him. The cliffs near Lyme Regis are riddled with remains from the Jurassic period; they’re also legendary for landslides and sink holes. Mary spent her youth clambering over these dangerous cliffs and collecting “curiosities” that her father sold to tourists in front of his shop on Bridge Street. Jane Austen even visited.
Sadly, Richard Anning died of consumption when Mary was only 11, and the family struggled to eke out a living by selling the fossils they found. That same year, Joseph uncovered a massive head of what he thought was a fossilized crocodile. Between tides and the weather, it was another year before the children could get back to it, and it was Mary who uncovered the entire skeleton: the first complete ichthyosaur!
Now, you’d think such a find would attract considerable attention, but Mary only earned £23 when she sold the fossil to the Lord of the Manor of Colway. He in turn exhibited it in William Bullock’s Museum of Natural History, and it wasn’t until 1814 that the Royal Society (the premiere scientific organization in England at the time) published a description in its Transactions (with little mention of Mary, thank you very much). The Annings were doing so poorly, in fact, that a professional fossil collector, Lieutenant-Colonel Birch, auctioned off his collection and donated the proceeds to them. The total amount raised was £400 (enough for a family of three to live on for a year or two).
By the time Mary was in her twenties, she was the head of the family’s fossil collecting business. In 1824, she discovered the skeleton of a plesiosaurus. She sold it for over £100 to the Duke of Buckingham himself. That discovery put her on the map, so to speak, but many scientists were skeptical that Mary was the person making these spectacular finds. For one, she was a woman, and for another, she had only attended school a short period in her life. Yet when they came to talk to her, they could only scratch their heads at her vast knowledge of the creatures she was uncovering. One of her visitors credited her skills to divine providence.
Even though Mary discovered a pterodactyl in 1828 and an even larger ichthyosaurus in 1832, it wasn’t until 1838 that the scientific community was willing to grant her any official standing. That year the British Association for the Advancement of Science awarded her an annuity. In 1846, she was made an honorary member of the Geological Society (honorary because women were not admitted until 1904). She died in March 1847 from breast cancer. Only after her death did the Royal Society acknowledge her, by donating a stained-glass window to her memory to the Parish Church at Lyme Regis.
It’s never easy being a nineteenth century heroine.