Mary Anning


Mary Anning : biography

21 May 1799 – 9 March 1847

After her death, Henry De la Beche, president of the Geological Society, wrote a eulogy that he read to a meeting of the society and published in its quarterly transactions, the first such eulogy given for a woman. These were honours normally only accorded to fellows of the society, which did not admit women until 1904. The eulogy began: "I cannot close this notice of our losses by death without advertising to that of one, who though not placed among even the easier classes of society, but one who had to earn her daily bread by her labour, yet contributed by her talents and untiring researches in no small degree to our knowledge of the great Enalio-Saurians, and other forms of organic life entombed in the vicinity of Lyme Regis …"

Charles Dickens wrote an article about her life in February 1865 in his literary magazine All the Year Round that emphasised the difficulties she had overcome, especially the scepticism of her fellow townspeople. He ended the article with: "The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it."

Impact and legacy

Anning’s discoveries became key pieces of evidence for extinction. Georges Cuvier had argued for the reality of extinction in the late 1790s based on his analysis of fossils of mammals such as mammoths. Nevertheless, until the early 1820s it was still believed by many scientifically literate people that just as new species did not appear, so existing ones did not become extinct—in part because they felt that extinction would imply that God’s creation had been imperfect; any oddities found were explained away as belonging to animals still living somewhere in an unexplored region of the earth. The bizarre nature of the fossils found by Anning, some, such as the plesiosaur, so unlike any known living creature, struck a major blow against this idea.

The ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and pterosaur she found, along with the first dinosaur fossils which were discovered by Gideon Mantell and William Buckland during the same period, showed that during previous eras the earth was inhabited by creatures very different from those living today, and provided important support for another controversial suggestion of Cuvier’s: that there had been an "age of reptiles" when reptiles rather than mammals had been the dominant form of animal life. A phrase that became popular after the publication in 1831 of a paper by Mantell entitled "The Age of Reptiles" that summarised the evidence that there had been an extended geological era when giant reptiles has swarmed the land, air, and sea. These discoveries also played a key role in the development of a new discipline of geohistorical analysis within geology in the 1820s that sought to understand the history of the earth by using evidence from fossils to reconstruct extinct organisms and the environments in which they lived. This discipline eventually came to be called palaeontology. Illustrations of scenes from "deep time" (now known as paleoart), such as Henry De la Beche’s ground-breaking painting Duria Antiquior, helped convince people that it was possible to understand life in the distant past. De la Beche had been inspired to create the painting by a vivid description of the food chain of the Lias by William Buckland that was based on analysis of coprolites. The study of coprolites, pioneered by Anning and Buckland, would prove to be a valuable tool for understanding ancient ecosystems.

Throughout the 20th century, beginning with H.A. Forde and his The Heroine of Lyme Regis: The Story of Mary Anning the Celebrated Geologist (1925), a number of writers saw Anning’s life as inspirational. She was even the basis of Terry Sullivan’s 1908 tongue twister, "She sells seashells," according to P.J. McCartney in Henry de la Beche (1978):

Much of the material written about her was aimed at children, and tended to focus on her childhood and early career. Much of it was also highly romanticised and not always historically accurate. She has been referenced in several historical novels, most notably in The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) by John Fowles, who was critical of the fact that no British scientist had named a species after her in her lifetime. As her biographer, Shelley Emling, noted, this contrasted with some of the prominent geologists who had used her finds, such as Buckland and Roderick Murchison, who ended up with multiple fossil species named after them. The only person who did name a species after her during her lifetime was the Swiss-American naturalist, Louis Agassiz. In the early 1840s he named two fossil fish species after her—Acrodus anningiae, and Belenostomus anningiae—and another after her friend Elizabeth Philpot. Agassiz was grateful for the help the women had given him in examining fossil fish specimens during his visit to Lyme Regis in 1834. After her death, other species, including the ostracod Cytherelloidea anningi, and two genera, the therapsid reptile genus Anningia, and the bivalve mollusc genus Anningella, were named in her honour.

In 1999, on the 200th anniversary of her birth, an international meeting of historians, palaeontologists, fossil collectors, and others interested in Anning’s life was held in Lyme Regis. In 2005 the Natural History Museum added her, alongside scientists such as Carl Linnaeus, Dorothea Bate, and William Smith, as one of the gallery characters it uses to patrol its display cases.

  • In 2009 Tracy Chevalier wrote a historical novel entitled, Remarkable Creatures, in which Anning and Elizabeth Philpot were the main characters, and another historical novel about Anning, Curiosity by Joan Thomas, was published in March 2010.
  • Also that month, as part of the celebration of its 350th anniversary, the Royal Society invited a panel of experts to produce a list of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science. They included Anning in the list.