Forgotten Women: Mary Anning – the godmother of dinosaurs
Mary Anning – the godmother of dinosaurs
By Kerry Fry
Writer, Executive Coach and Mentor
Image credits: Natural History Museum
You may have seen this remarkable woman’s name in the media recently because of the ‘Mary Anning Rocks’ campaign to crowd fund her statue in her hometown of Lyme Regis, Dorset. But who was she?
As far as I (and many others) am concerned, she is the godmother of palaeontology and the greatest fossilist who ever lived. I don’t mind admitting that I am still a huge lover of dinosaurs. I have an A Level in geology, I watch Jurassic Park (the original of course) on repeat and am even engaged to a Geologist. And I’m not alone in my fascination with these prehistoric creatures. Mary Anning is one of the reasons we know so much about them. But sadly, her name has been lost to history.
Anning was a pioneering fossil hunter living in Dorset who made a catalogue of exceptional finds, including many ‘firsts. Her discoveries informed the work of her male, educated contemporaries at a time when women were believed to lack the intellectual rigour required to engage in scientific study.Her fossils shaped new ideas about the history of our planet and the evolution of life upon it – a story that culminated in Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’.
As a working-class woman from a poor, socially outcast family, Anning’s work is even more remarkable. Despite having little formal education, she could read and went on to teach herself geology and anatomy. Growing up on England’s Jurassic coast, fossil hunting with her father under the crumbling Dorset cliffs was a regular, not to mention dangerous, activity. The best time for fossilling was winter following storms that dislodged specimens from the cliffs. Collecting them had to be quick and was a risky business.
At aged just 12, she discovered the first Ichthyosaur to come to scientific attention – a 5.2-metre-long fossil that went on public display in London in 1814 where it caused a sensation. Just over a decade later she made the first discovery of a complete Plesiosaurus and a few years after that, the first ever British find of a flying reptile in 1828. Once again, news of Anning’s exceptional discovery attracted the attention of scientists from London to Paris.
Despite having made some of the most significant geological finds of all time, Anning never received the credit due to her. The wealthy men that sought out her palaeontological expertise and purchased her fossils did not include her name in their scientific papers, or on her fossils displayed in museums across the world. Due to her sex and social standing, she was denied access to much of the scientific community including the Geological Society of London who did not admit women as members, or even guests at lectures, until over half a century after her death. Anning’s only writingto be published in her lifetime was a letter to the Magazine of Natural History challenging one of its claims. Understandably, she grew resentful of her treatment, expressing her feeling in a letterthat “The world has used me so unkindly”.
As an outsider to civilised society, Mary Anning has been left out of the history books and her invaluable contributions to science overlooked. Her finds fuelled public interest in geology and palaeontology causing a surge in visits to fossil collections – a demand that even major museums struggled to keep up with. She inspired geologists like Henry De la Beche and Thomas Hawkins to paint and write about prehistoric life based on actual fossil evidence and in 1823 The Bristol Mirrorwrote of her – “to her exertions we owe nearly all the fine specimens of Ichthyosauri of the great collections”.
Towards the end of her life, Anning received some acknowledgement and was granted an annual paymentfrom the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Geological Society of London. However, in 1847 she died of breast cancer, still in relative poverty. Her achievements challenged contemporary notions of women’s capabilities and intellectual capacity. It took a hundred and sixty-three years for her to be recognised by the Royal Societyas one of the most influential female scientists in British history.
I think a statue is well overdue.
Find out more
Mary Anning – the ‘Mary Anning Rocks’ campaign https://www.maryanningrocks.co.uk/
Forgotten Women – series of books by Zing Tsjeng (some of which feature the women in my articles):
Forgotten Women: The Scientists
Forgotten Women: The Leaders
Forgotten Women: The Writers
Forgotten Women: The Artists
Kerry is a writer with a passion for empowering women to succeed. Her degree in Ancient History & Archaeology provides a historical lens for her work which focuses on bringing attention to feminist issues, inequalities and celebrating female success – past and present. As a Birmingham-based professional Coach and communication expert, Kerry’s mission is to help women define success for themselves and equip them to go get it. You can find her on LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/
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