Mary Anning: Fossil hunter

This extract is a chapter from our second women in STEM anthology, More Passion For Science: Journeys into the Unknownavailable as an ebook for £1.99 from Amazon.

by Becky Chambers

It’s the 1830s, and you, dear reader, have a question about fossils. Marine fossils, to be precise. Now, geology is a very new field and the term ‘palaeontology’ has only been in use for a handful of years. Where do you go in search of answers? Unless you have an exceptional cutting edge library nearby you’re unlikely to find any answers in the stacks, and while your nearest museum might have some fossils, there’s no guarantee that any of the staff there will be knowledgeable about them. A university or academic society seems the next logical step and, yes, you’ll find some good brains to pick there. Chances are, you’ll find some newly minted geology enthusiast who would love nothing better than to meet for lunch and regale you with the latest theories (which are, as these things go, all over the place).

But what if you’re looking for something more hands-on? What if you don’t want to discuss abstract ideas, but practical knowledge? What if you want to talk to someone who’s worked in the field, whose fingernails still hold the dust of ancient sea beds? What if you have a specimen of your own, and you don’t know what you’re looking at? What if you want to learn how to prepare specimens yourself? An academic might be able to help, yes, but if you want the good stuff – if you want to go right to the source – you need to talk to a fossil hunter. Given the time period, there’s one in particular you simply have to seek out.

To find this expert, you need to travel to the village of Lyme Regis, tucked in along the coastline of southern England. If you don’t live in England, don’t let that stop you. You won’t be the first to have made this trip.

Ask anyone in town, and they’ll be able to point you in the right direction. You’re looking for a shop with a glass window showcasing the head of an ichthyosaur. Open the door and you’ll find a trove of Jurassic wonders. Skulls, shells, skeletons, all offered at a reasonable price. If you’re lucky, the shop’s proprietor will be in. She’ll be wearing a plain dress and bonnet, and the cut of her clothes will tell you that she’s not well off. She might have a dog with her – a terrier named Tray who has been her loyal companion on many an excavation. This woman can tell you anything you want to know about the fossils she has for sale and, if you ask nicely, she’ll take you to the cliffs where she finds them. She might even teach you the tricks of the trade.

Her name is Mary Anning, and she knows more about fossils than just about anyone.

A childhood of discovery

Born in 1799, Mary Anning came into the world with two strikes against her. First, she was female, which meant she was unable to get a formal education. It’s likely that she learnt the basics in Sunday school and doubtful that she was taught much beyond that. To make matters worse, her family was poor. Desperately poor. Anning’s father, a carpenter, died of tuberculosis when she was 11, leaving her family in debt and dependent on assistance from their parish. At one point, they started selling their furniture in order to make ends meet. It was a terrible set of circumstances for a budding young mind.

To bring in some money, young Mary and her older brother, Joseph, continued the practice their father had taught them – they went to the cliffs in search of ‘curios’ to sell to tourists. In her father’s day, fossils were a proper mystery, with colourful folklore and poetic nicknames. Snake stones. Bezoar stones. Devil’s fingers. But by the time Anning’s mother was selling the kitchen chairs, academics were seeking other explanations for the dead monsters in the ground. It was a conundrum like no other. There was no explanation for creation beyond a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis (Charles Darwin wouldn’t board the HMS Beagle for another 20 years). The concept of extinction was a controversial idea, and not widely accepted. But how else could there be stony skeletons locked within heavy layers of rock? And why were they unlike anything alive at the time?

This realm of debate was probably unknown to Anning on a fateful day in 1811, when she and her brother uncovered something extraordinary. Joseph dug out the skull, over a meter long. Mary found the accompanying skeleton some months later. She was 12 years old.

It was the most complete ichthyosaur the world of science had ever seen.

The Annings sold the find, which made its way to London. Unsurprisingly, it gained enormous attention. Classifications were attempted: everything from a crocodile to an amphibian to a long-lost cousin of the platypus. Papers were written. Learned men scratched their heads and theorised.

All the while, a girl kept digging.

“She understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom.”

The surviving Annings were all fossil hunters, but as Mary grew older, she became the star of the family business. Their mother Molly’s involvement is poorly documented, but she ran things until at least 1821; Joseph became an upholsterer in 1825, by which point Mary was unquestionably in charge. What had begun as a means of getting by evolved into an intellectual passion. The work was difficult and dangerous. The cliff faces, worn by time and tide, were prone to landslides and unexpected collapses. None of this stopped Anning. There was a puzzle out there, and she was determined to find the pieces.

With no other options for education, Anning taught herself. She devoured any academic papers she could find, sometimes copying them by hand and adding detailed notes. She conducted her own dissections, examining modern fish and squid to be able to compare anatomy. Through sheer grit, she became a field researcher in everything but name.

And her finds, by all accounts, were marvellous. During her lifetime, she unearthed the first nearly complete plesiosaur, multiple species of ichthyosaurs, and the first British pterosaur specimen, not to mention a bevy of ammonites, fish and cephalopods. These she sold to interested parties, who were undoubtedly keen to show off their new treasures.

Word spread about who’d pulled them out of the rock and at what risk. In 1823, an article in the Bristol Mirror spoke of Anning’s tenacity:

This persevering female has for years gone daily in search of fossil remains of importance at every tide, for many miles under the hanging cliffs at Lyme, whose fallen masses are her immediate object, as they alone contain these valuable relics of a former world, which must be snatched at the moment of their fall, at the continual risk of being crushed by the half suspended fragments they leave behind, or be left to be destroyed by the returning tide: – to her exertions we owe nearly all the fine specimens of Ichthyosauri of the great collections.

By her mid-twenties, Mary Anning’s name was known in academia. The list of scientists she was in contact with during the 1820s and 30s reads like a Whos Who of early geology: Henry De la Beche, William Buckland, Gideon Mantell, Richard Owen, Charles Lyell, Adam Sedgwick (who became one of Darwin’s professors)… the names go on. These people came not just to purchase specimens, but to get Anning’s insights. Her esteemed know-how was noted in the diary of Lady Harriet Sivester, who visited her in 1824.

…the extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she has made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong. She fixes the bones on a frame with cement and then makes drawings and has them engraved…It is certainly a wonderful instance of divine favour – that this poor, ignorant girl should be so blessed, for by reading and application she has arrived to that degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom.

Anning’s network of academics was partially cultivated by Charlotte Murchison, the wife of geologist Roderick Murchison. The Murchisons visited Anning while Roderick conducted fieldwork in southwest England, but it was Charlotte who stayed on in Lyme Regis for a few weeks, eager to become a “fossilist” herself. Charlotte’s connections through her husband proved to be a rich source of contacts and customers for Anning, and the two became lifelong friends (it was to Charlotte that Anning wrote of her grief following the death of her dog, which died in a landslide that nearly killed her as well).

But “clever men” were not the only source of scientific collaboration in Anning’s life. Fellow Lyme Regis resident Elizabeth Philpot had a similar love for ancient marine life. Nearly twenty years Anning’s senior, and middle class to boot, Philpot and her sisters were fossil collectors; their expansive collection ended up at Oxford, where it remains to this day. She and Anning were fast friends, and collaborated together in their work. In one instance, Anning discovered that belemnites, an extinct type of cephalopod, sometimes held ink sacs. Philpot, who was an artist as well, found that the ink could be revived if mixed with water. The practice became popular among local artists, who made illustrations of fossils with actual fossil ink.

Philpot, too, was known in geological circles, and consulted by men of academia. In 1834, geologist Louis Agassiz visited Lyme Regis to work with both her and Anning. He did not leave disappointed. As 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.” In thanks, he named three species of fossil fish after them:Eugnathus philpotae, Acrodus anningiae, and Belenostomus anningiae.

Of all the observations Anning made, there is one particular discovery that stands out. It is not, perhaps, the most elegant of legacies, but it’s one that has had a lasting impact on palaeontological research. Objects known as ‘bezoar stones’ were a common find in fossil-rich areas, but like most ‘curios’ their origin was unknown. That is, until Anning. She was the first to observe that they were sometimes found in the intestinal region of ichthyosaurs, and that if you broke them open, the remains of smaller creatures could be found within. They were coprolites, or fossilised faeces. Despite their unsavoury context, coprolites are a valuable source of information for paleontologists, even today. Most of what we know about the dietary habits of extinct animals is based in their study. All thanks to Anning’s eye for evidence.

The barrier to entry

Mary Anning’s reputation kept her business going and, by 1826, she had saved enough money to purchase a glass-windowed shop, Anning’s Fossil Depot. But her impressive achievements did little to enhance her financial stability. It was a difficult time for England’s economy and, like many lower-class individuals, Anning did not fare well. As is the case for so many, hard work and intelligence weren’t enough to overcome a stacked deck.

To add insult to injury, Anning’s finds made their way into published academia, but largely without mention of her name. The scientists who did work based on her specimens always noted the collectors who had purchased them, but never the woman who risked life and limb to bring them to light. The exception was her friend William Buckland, who credited her in his papers about coprolites and pterosaurs. The general rule of exclusion, however, did not escape Anning’s notice. The closest she ever got to publication was a short paragraph in The Magazine of Natural History in 1839: an excerpt from a letter she wrote to the editor, questioning the validity of a supposedly new genus of shark (she’d been digging up similar specimens for years). A young woman named Anna Pinney, who sometimes joined Anning on her digs, wrote of the fossil hunter’s frustrations.

“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.”

Signs of her justified resentment can be found elsewhere, including a wonderful article in an 1865 issue of All The Year Round, a literary journal edited by none other than Charles Dickens. Among charmingly written details about her life and character (“She had a high degree [of] that certain intuition without which it is hopeless for anyone to think of becoming a good collector of fossils”), there is a sombre quote attributed to her, taken from a letter written to “a young girl in London”.

“I beg your pardon for distrusting your friendship. The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of every one.”

But Anning’s plight did not go without notice. In 1830, Henry de la Beche commissioned lithographic prints of his paintingDuria Antiquior, which depicted prehistoric Dorset teeming with the toothy, flippered species she had uncovered. He sold the prints to his colleagues and gave the proceeds to her, in what you might think of as the 19th-century equivalent of crowdfunding. In the late 1830s, William Buckland went to bat for her at the British Association for the Advancement of Science, convincing them to give her a £25 annual pension as recognition for her scientific contributions. And in 1846, when the ravages of breast cancer prevented her from continuing her work, the Geological Society of London came to her aid, raising funds to assist her. Around the same time, she was made an honorary member of the Dorset County Museum.

There’s no question that Anning was poorly rewarded during her time, but there is some small comfort in knowing the degree to which she was respected. She was unable to share a table with her peers, but if nothing else, they made sure she wasn’t forgotten.

An example of what’s possible

Following her death in 1847, Henry de la Beche eulogised Anning in the Geological Society’s quarterly journal.

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… there are those among us who know well how to appreciate the skill she employed, (from her knowledge of the various works as they appeared on the subject,) in developing the remains of many fine skeletons of Ichthyosauri and Plesiosauri, which without her care would never have been represented to comparative anatomists in the uninjured form so desirable for their examination.

Anning was not the only fossil hunter out there. Palaeontology would have gone on without her. But as with all human endeavours, the contributions of one person can have a domino effect on those around her. Her finds became key evidence in establishing the reality of extinction, and later, evolution. Without her pioneering efforts, the shape of early palaeontology would have been very different. Someone else would have made those discoveries, true. But she was the one who did.

Two hundred years after Anning’s time, we have yet to eradicate class and gender privilege. It is easy to feel discouraged when reading news articles about young adults who can’t afford higher education, or children who never get a proper education at all. It is disheartening to read study after study confirming the gender biases heavily at play within STEM fields. But think of what Anning accomplished, with only hand-copied notes and a heavy chisel. What could she have done with the resources we have freely available today? You don’t even have to think as far as a scholarship, or an internship. Just imagine what she could have done with, say, a digital camera and a blog. Imagine if she could chat and trade forum posts with citizen scientists. Imagine her as a Coursera student, or a Wikipedia contributor. Or better yet, look at the people alive today who do those things, and consider that they share a kindred spirit with a woman whose work still hangs in museum halls.

Had Mary Anning been alive in our time, she may well have made it to college, and been allowed her deserved place in academia. But in many ways, her lack of an education makes her all the more inspiring. She stands as an example to those who are without. She is a dual reminder that individual will can overcome societal obstacles, but that society, too, must make an effort to support those that it has disadvantaged. She reminds us that science is not the walled-off enclave of the fortunate, but a spongy, organic mass of knowledge that belongs to all of humanity. It is the realm of the curious, the diligent, the resourceful, the imaginative. We all can take part. We all can make a difference.

Further reading

Torrens, H (1995) “Mary Anning (1799–1847) of Lyme; ‘the greatest fossilist the world ever knew’”, The British Journal for the History of Science, 28(3), 257-284.

Dickens, C (1865) “Mary Anning, The Fossil Finder”, All The Year Round, 13, 60-63.

Anning, M (1839) “Extract of a Letter from Miss Anning”,The Magazine of Natural History, 3, 605.

The Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London,4, (1848).

About the author

Becky Chambers is a writer with a love for space, science and storytelling. She is the author of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, a science fiction novel. Her work has also appeared at The Mary Sue,, The Toast, Pornokitsch, and Five Out Of Ten. She lives with her partner in Northern California.

Twitter: @beckysaysrawr

Find out about more women in STEM in A Passion For Science: Tales of Discovery and Invention and More Passion for Science: Journeys into the Unknown, both ebooks just £1.99 on Amazon.