Mary Anning : biography
Carus asked Anning to write her name and address in his pocketbook for future reference—she wrote it as "Mary Annins"—and when she handed it back to him she told him: "I am well known throughout the whole of Europe."
- also see As time passed, Anning’s confidence in her knowledge grew, and in 1839 she wrote to the Magazine of Natural History to question the claim made in an article, that a recently discovered fossil of the prehistoric shark Hybodus represented a new genus, as an error since she had discovered the existence of fossil sharks with both straight and hooked teeth many years ago. The extract from the letter that the magazine printed was the only writing of Anning’s published in the scientific literature during her lifetime. Some personal letters written by her, such as her correspondence with Frances Augusta Bell, were published while she was alive, however.
Interactions with the scientific community
As a working-class woman, Anning was an outsider to the scientific community. At the time in Britain women were not allowed to vote (neither were men too poor to meet the property requirement), hold public office, or attend university. The newly formed, but increasingly influential Geological Society of London did not allow women to become members, or even to attend meetings as guests. The only occupations generally open to working-class women were farm labour, domestic service, and work in the newly opening factories.
Although Anning knew more about fossils and geology than many of the wealthy fossilists to whom she sold, it was always the gentlemen geologists who published the scientific descriptions of the specimens she found, often neglecting to mention her name. She became resentful of this. Anna Pinney, a young woman who sometimes accompanied Anning while she collected, wrote: "She says the world has used her ill … these men of learning have sucked her brains, and made a great deal of publishing works, of which she furnished the contents, while she derived none of the advantages." Torrens writes that these slights to Anning were part of a larger pattern of ignoring the contributions of working-class people in early-19th-century scientific literature. Often a fossil would be found by a quarryman, construction worker, or road worker who would sell it to a wealthy collector, and it was the latter who was credited if the find was of scientific interest.
Along with purchasing specimens, many geologists visited her to collect fossils or discuss anatomy and classification. Henry De la Beche and Anning became friends as teenagers following his move to Lyme, and he, Mary, and sometimes Mary’s brother Joseph, went fossil-hunting together. De la Beche and Anning kept in touch as he became one of Britain’s leading geologists. William Buckland, who lectured on geology at the University of Oxford, often visited Lyme on his Christmas vacations and was frequently seen hunting for fossils with Anning.
- It was to him she made what would prove to be the scientifically important suggestion that the strange conical objects known as bezoar stones, were really the fossilised faeces of ichthyosaurs or plesiosaurs. Buckland would name the objects coprolites. In 1839 Buckland, Conybeare, and Richard Owen visited Lyme together so that Anning could lead them all on a fossil-collecting excursion.
She also assisted Thomas Hawkins with his efforts to collect ichthyosaur fossils at Lyme in the 1830s. She was aware of his penchant to "enhance" the fossils he collected. She wrote: "he is such an enthusiast that he makes things as he imagines they ought to be; and not as they are really found…". A few years later there was a public scandal when it was discovered that Hawkins had inserted fake bones to make some ichthyosaur skeletons seem more complete, and later sold them to the government for the British Museum’s collection without the appraisers knowing about the additions.
The Swiss palaeontologist Louis Agassiz visited Lyme in 1834 and worked with Anning to obtain and study fish fossils found in the region. He was so impressed by her and her friend Elizabeth Philpot that he wrote in his journal: "Miss Philpot and Mary Anning have been able to show me with utter certainty which are the icthyodorulites dorsal fins of sharks that correspond to different types." He thanked both of them for their help in his book, Studies of Fossil Fish.