Mary Anning – #ALD10

Mary AnningFor this year’s Ada Lovelace Day I’d like to focus a little closer to home. Like many young proto-fans, I was very fond of dinosaurs while I was a kid. That may have been in part because I also happened to have an aunt who lived near Lyme Regis, one of the most famous fossil-hunting sites in the world. Why is it famous? Because it was in this little Dorset seaside town that the whole dinosaur story started.

Mary Anning was one of two surviving children from a poor Dorset family. Her father made a meager living by collecting interesting shells and other curiosities from the local beach and selling them to tourists. Mary and her brother, Joseph, were trained in the family business, and when Richard Anning died of consumption in 1810 Mary and Joseph had to take over. Mary was just 11 years old at the time.

The following year Joseph found what appeared to be the skull of a crocodile protruding from a cliff by the beach. Mary was fascinated and began the painstaking work of excavating it. When she had finished she became the owner of the first known fossil of an ichthyosaurus.

Further discoveries followed: a plesiosaurus, a pterodactylus. The scientific world began to take notice, and young Mary was obliged to defend herself from accusations of fraud. Despite having little formal education, Mary was able to hold her own and establish herself as a world expert in the new science of fossil hunting. But, as a woman of working class origins, she was unable to join the scientific establishment. Instead she continued her work at Lyme, interacting with scientists and wealthy patrons when they came to visit.

As a woman, Mary was unable to attend the Geological Society meetings where her discoveries were presented to the scientific world. Indeed, according to her Wikipedia article (which appears well researched and is heavily footnoted) she was not even mentioned when her discoveries were announced. As the Natural History Museum puts it: “William Buckland, Henry de la Beche and William Conybeare were some of the many scientists who owe their achievements to her.” (My emphasis). And because ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs are only distantly related to the giant land-dwelling creatures of the time, you will still see Buckland credited as the discoverer of the first dinosaur, because his later find was of a land animal, Megalosaurus.

The picture accompanying this article is a portrait of Mary and her dog, Tray. As you can see, she has a bag to collect her fossils, and a hammer to extract them. As this BBC article reveals, that hammer can still be seen in the little town museum at Lyme Regis.

And to finish, here is a charming, if somewhat fanciful, animated film about Mary that I found on YouTube.

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2 Responses to Mary Anning – #ALD10

  1. I adore Mary Anning and have been working on a show about her for a couple of years. One clarification, if you don’t mind, this wasn’t the first associated skeleton of a ichthyosaur, but it was the first one to be seriously studied. The speculation is that her discovery made it into the London papers because of the novelty of a twelve-year old girl finding it.

    Also, no fossilists were ever noted, so that omission had nothing to do with the fact that she was a woman. She was highly respected and considered to be one of the best fossilists.

    In an aside, I had a whole series of blog entries about our research trip to Lyme-Regis and it no longer exists online. Rats.

  2. Nicholas Waller says:

    Mary Anning turned up tonight (Thursday 25th) on the second episode of the new BBC series looking behind the scenes at The Natural History Museum, The Museum of Life. They had an actor (and a dog) picking up rocks, and Liz Bonnin (also of Bang Goes The Theory) talking to a geologist about what the Lyme Regis area was like in the deep past. (Plus plenty of other items and travels, with about five reporters, covering South Africa fossils, the conservation labs in the bowels of the museum, the animatronics chap who runs the T Rex, trays of amber etc).

    The programme said that as a woman Anning could not join the Geological Society, but she was made an honorary member.

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