Mary Anning : biography
Invertebrates and trace fossils
Vertebrate fossil finds, especially of marine reptiles, made Anning’s reputation, but she made numerous other contributions to early palaeontology. In 1826 she discovered what appeared to be a chamber containing dried ink inside a belemnite fossil. She showed it to her friend Elizabeth Philpot who was able to revivify the ink and use it to illustrate some of her own ichthyosaur fossils. Soon other local artists were doing the same, as more such fossilised ink chambers were discovered. Anning noted how closely the fossilised chambers resembled the ink sacs of modern squid and cuttle fish, which she had dissected to understand the anatomy of fossil cephalopods, and this led William Buckland to publish the conclusion that Jurassic belemnites had used ink for defence just as many modern cephalopods do.
- It was also Anning who noticed that the oddly shaped fossils then known as "bezoar stones" were sometimes found in the abdominal region of ichthyosaur skeletons. She noted that if such stones were broken open they often contained fossilised fish bones and scales, and sometimes bones from small ichthyosaurs. Anning suspected the stones were fossilised faeces and suggested so to Buckland in 1824. After further investigation and comparison with similar fossils found in other places, Buckland published that conclusion in 1829 and named them coprolites. In contrast to the finding of the plesiosaur skeletons a few years earlier, for which she was not credited, when Buckland presented his findings on coprolites to the Geological Society, he mentioned Anning by name and praised her skill and industry in helping to solve the mystery.
Life and career
Anning was born in Lyme Regis in Dorset, England. Her father, Richard, was a cabinetmaker who supplemented his income by mining the coastal cliff-side fossil beds near the town, and selling his finds to tourists. He married Mary Moore, known as Molly, on 8 August 1793 in Blandford Forum. The couple moved to Lyme and lived in a house built on the town’s bridge. They attended the Dissenter chapel on Coombe Street, whose worshippers initially called themselves independents and later, became known as Congregationalists. Shelley Emling writes that the family lived so close to the sea that the same storms that swept along the cliffs to reveal the fossils sometimes flooded the Annings’ home, on one occasion forcing them to crawl out of an upstairs bedroom window to avoid being drowned.
Richard and Molly had ten children. The first child Mary was born in 1794. She was followed by another girl, who died almost at once; Joseph in 1796; and another son in 1798, who died in infancy. In December that year the oldest child, then four years old, died after her clothes caught fire, possibly whilst adding wood shavings to the fire. The incident was reported in the Bath Chronicle on 27 December 1798: "A child, four years of age of Mr. R. Anning, a cabinetmaker of Lyme, was left by the mother for about five minutes … in a room where there were some shavings … The girl’s clothes caught fire and she was so dreadfully burnt as to cause her death." When another daughter was born just five months later, she was named Mary after her dead sister. More children were born after her, but none of them survived more than a couple of years. Only Mary and Joseph survived to adulthood. The high childhood mortality rate for the Anning family was not that unusual. Almost half the children born in Britain throughout the 19th century died before the age of 5, and in the crowded living conditions of early 19th century Lyme Regis, infant deaths from diseases like small pox and measles were particularly common.
On 19 August 1800, when Anning was 15 months old, an event occurred that became part of local lore. She was being held by a neighbour, Elizabeth Haskings, who was standing with two other women under an elm tree watching an equestrian show being put on by a traveling company of horsemen when lightning struck the tree killing all three women below. Onlookers rushed the infant home where she was revived in a bath of hot water. A local doctor declared her survival miraculous. Her family said she had been a sickly baby before the event but afterwards she seemed to blossom. For years afterward members of her community would attribute the child’s curiosity, intelligence and lively personality to the incident.