Friday, January 17, 2020

Nineteenth Century Heroines: Still No Bones About It


I originally posted this in November 2009, but I recently ran across a few more interesting facts and thought it a good time to update. And so, I give you anew, Mary Anning, fossil collector.

Mary was born in 1799 in Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast of England, not far from my spa town of Grace-by-the-Sea. 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—the area is now called the Jurassic Coast. But those cliffs are 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. Here’s a sketch.

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, no bones about it.

3 comments:

Matte Blk, Catalyst4Christ said...

Amen, dear.
Though being a saint neans you
gotta get some bones.
HintHint

QNPoohBear said...

Mary has gotten a lot of notice since your original post. There are some children's picture books about her and she's featured in The Case of the Counterfeit Criminals (The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency, Book 3). She asks young Ada Byron and young Mary Wollstonecraft (later Shelley) to help her solve a mystery. Still-living Allegra Byron and Mary's stepsister round out the cast, plus cameos by younger still Charles Dickens. For adult readers, Tracy Chevalier's Remarkable Creatures is a fictionalized account of Mary Anning's life. I have not read a real biography, but I read a review of The Fossil Hunter by Shelley Emling. The Lyme Regis Museum has a new Mary Anning wing and a Mary Anning tour. Not bad for a forgotten woman of 200 years ago!

Regina Scott said...

Not bad at all! Thanks, QnPoohBear!