Pioneers of Faith and Science – Mary Anning, palaeontologist

Mary Anning (21 May 1799 – 9 March 1847) was a British fossil collector, dealer, and palaeontologist who became known around the world for important finds she made in the

Jurassic marine fossil beds at Lyme Regis in Dorset, a county in Southwest England on the coast of the English Channel, where she lived.[2] Her work contributed to fundamental changes that occurred during her lifetime in scientific thinking about prehistoric life and the history of the Earth. (from Wikipedia).

Mary Anning searched for fossils in the area’s Blue Lias cliffs, particularly during the winter months when landslides exposed new fossils that had to be collected quickly before they were lost to the sea. It was dangerous work, and she nearly lost her life in 1833 during a landslide that killed her dog, Tray. Her discoveries included the first ichthyosaur skeleton correctly identified, which she and her brother Joseph found when she was just twelve years old; the first two plesiosaur skeletons found; the first pterosaur skeleton located outside Germany; and important fish fossils. Her observations played a key role in the discovery that coprolites, known as bezoar stones at the time, were fossilised faeces. She also discovered that belemnite fossils contained fossilised ink sacs like those of modern cephalopods. When geologist Henry De la Beche painted Duria Antiquior, the first widely circulated pictorial representation of a scene from prehistoric life derived from fossil reconstructions, he based it largely on fossils Anning had found, and sold prints of it for her benefit.

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 travelling 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.[8] 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.[9]

Her education was extremely limited. She was able to attend a Congregationalist Sunday school where she learned to read and write. Congregationalist doctrine, unlike that of the Church of England at the time, emphasised the importance of education for the poor. Her prized possession was a bound volume of the Dissenters’ Theological Magazine and Review, in which the family’s pastor, the Reverend James Wheaton, had published two essays, one insisting that God had created the world in six days, the other urging dissenters to study the new science of geology.[10]

In addition the family’s status as religious dissenters — not followers of the Church of England — attracted discrimination. Dissenters were not allowed into universities or the army, and were excluded by law from several professions.[6] Her father had been suffering from tuberculosis and injuries he suffered from a fall off a cliff. When he died in November 1810 (aged 44), he left the family with significant debts and no savings, forcing them to apply for parish relief.[16]

The family continued collecting and selling fossils together, and set up a table of curiosities near the coach stop at a local inn. Although the stories about Anning tend to focus on her successes, Dennis Dean writes that her mother and brother were astute collectors too, and her parents had sold significant fossils before the father’s death

Due to Anning’s gender and social class, she was prevented from fully participating in the scientific community of 19th-century Britain, dominated as it was by wealthy Anglican gentlemen. She struggled financially for much of her life. Her family was poor, and as religious dissenters, were subject to legal discrimination. Her father, a cabinetmaker, died when she was eleven.

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.[14] 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.”[32] 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.[4]

She became well known in geological circles in Britain, Europe, and America, and was consulted on issues of anatomy as well as about collecting fossils. Nonetheless, as a woman, she was not eligible to join the Geological Society of London and she did not always receive full credit for her scientific contributions. Indeed, she wrote in a letter: “The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone.”[3] The only scientific writing of hers published in her lifetime appeared in the Magazine of Natural History in 1839, an extract from a letter that Anning had written to the magazine’s editor questioning one of its claims.[4]

Around 1830 she switched from attending the local Congregational church, where she had been baptised and in which she and her family had always been active members, to the Anglican church. The change was prompted in part by a decline in Congregational attendance that began in 1828 when its popular pastor, John Gleed, a fellow fossil collector, left for the United States to campaign against slavery. He was replaced by the less likeable Ebenezer Smith. The greater social respectability of the established church, in which some of Anning’s gentleman geologist customers such as Buckland, Conybeare, and Sedgwick were ordained clergy, was also a factor. Anning, who was devoutly religious, actively supported her new church as she had her old.[43]

After her death in 1847, her unusual life story attracted increasing interest. Charles Dickens wrote of her in 1865 that “[t]he carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.”[3] In 2010, one hundred and sixty-three years after her death, the Royal Society included Anning in a list of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science.[5]

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