For 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.