Inspiring STEM Women: Mary Anning

Mary Anning was a fossil collector, fossil dealer and a paleontologist who’s work contributed to major changes in scientific thought about the history of the earth, life and organisms. Her passion began as she would go fossil hunting by her home on the Blue Lias cliffs of Dorset in England. This was often a dangerous job as she had to collect newly exposed fossils following landslides before they would be lost to the sea, indeed she was almost killed by a landslide in 1833.

She collected fossils with her mother and brother following her father’s death to make money for the family, and their popularity grew. She immersed herself in the world of geology and anatomy reading scientific literature whenever she could obtain or borrow it. Her education was incredibly limited, learning to read and write in Sunday school. She had a copy of the Dissenters Theological Magazine and Review which was a prized possession and contained two articles written by her pastor- one which urged dissenters to study the new science of geology. Following financial ups and downs and with increasingly good knowledge and reputation, aged 27 she was able to open her own fossil shop, ‘Annings Fossil Depot.’

Although not able to fully participate in the scientific community, which was male-only and strictly for the upper classes (working class men or women who discovered fossils were very rarely credited in publications), her discoveries included the first ichthyosaur skeleton correctly identified; the first two plesiosaur skeletons found; the first pterosaur skeleton located outside of Germany and many important fish fossils. Her work also played a major role in identifying ‘bezoar stones’ as they were known at the time as actual fossilized feces and she discovered that belemnite fossils contained fossilized ink sacs similar to one found in modern cephalopods. She produced exceptionally high standard samples and sample displays and drawings. She also worked on dissection of fish to better understand how bones structures were held together.

Anning was well known amongst geological academics across Europe and many travelled to fossil hunt with her, visit her shop and consult her on issues of anatomy. Many well-known academics, such as leading British geologist Roderick Murchison and Swiss paleontologist Louis Agassiz credited or thanked her in their published works. During particular times of financial difficulty, peers and friends took the opportunity to help, for example her friend and geologist Henry De la Beche commissioned Georg Scharf to make a lithographic print based on his own water colour painting showing life in prehistoric Dorset that was based on Annings fossil findings. He sold copies of the print and donated the proceeds to her. Despite all of this, she was not eligible to join the Geological Society of London, as she was a woman. She wasn’t even allowed to attend as a guest. It was in 2010, 163 years after her death, that the Royal Society included her name in a list of ten British women who most influenced the history of science.

She was well loved and respected by the Geological Society, despite her gender, however. Upon hearing of her breast cancer diagnosis in 1846 the Society raised money from its own members to help with expenses, she was made an honorary member of the Dorset County Museum, and the Geological society also contributed to a stained-glass window in her memory after her death. Charles Darwin wrote an article about her life, in which he referenced her humble background as a cabinet makers’ daughter and praised how she had overcome financial difficulties, and difficulties being a women and lower class member of society to contribute so much, ‘The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.’

Written by Sophie Chadwick

Posted on Thursday Mar 24