The girl held up the folds of her long skirt as she scurried under the towering cliffs. She had a few hours yet among shifting rocks before the tide ran in and covered a huge skull her brother had found. He thought it was that of a crocodile. Now 11-year-old Mary Anning was on a quest. Behind that skull, she thought, lay the rest of the beast’s bones.
The year was 1810 and their father, Richard, a cabinet maker, had died earlier that year of consumption, leaving the family destitute. Mr. Anning had sometimes exhibited outside his shop on Bridge Street the fossils he had found in strolls along the coast of the English Channel. Now that he was gone, 13-year-old Joseph had to learn a trade himself. But Mary and her mother would only survive if they could make a business of fossil collecting.
Mary was a girl child in a man’s England. She was incredibly poor in a land that honored only those with position and wealth. She was a Congregationalist in an Anglican country. Except for a brief appearance at the Dissenters school, she was uneducated and ignorant of the world. She had never left her home in the small coastal town of Lyme Regis on the borders of Devon and Dorset. Nothing about her at all suggested that she would become one of the foremost paleontologists in the world.
To put bread on their table, Mary and her mother risked death every day on England’s “Jurassic Coast” to gather curiosities like the giant crocodile skull and sell them to people with disposable income. The tourists had been coming down to Lyme Regis from Bath since 1758, when the turnpike connected Dorchester to Exeter. (The region was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2001.)
Within a year Mary found the rest of the “crocodile” skeleton in the rock. But it was not like any crocodile anyone had ever seen. In fact, it was the first complete skeleton humans had ever seen of Ichthyosaurus, an ancient sea reptile. Mary sold the bones for £23 to Henry Henley, who owned nearby Colway Manor.
Over the years, working with fossils gave Mary a practical understanding of vertebrate anatomy. She not only pried the bones from the earth. She arranged them in their place on a frame and made drawings to show each organism as it had lived. Soon her practical eye was partnered in conversation with a new Lyme Regis neighbor who possessed the formal education she lacked.
In 1812 Mary met Henry de la Beche, who at 16 had already studied the geology of Jamaica, where his family had owned a plantation. Now he talked with the noted young bone collector about the dinosaur fossils she had found throughout the strata of earth and rock. These long-dead species cast doubt on the literal words of Genesis. Clearly, it seemed, the earth was not made in six days, nor were all the animals saved from the Great Flood in Noah’s Ark. The fossil record showed that there were many ages to the earth and that the geological age could be identified by fossils found within earth strata.
Mary and her mother continued their hand-to-mouth existence until 1819, when a professional fossil collector, Lt. Col. Thomas Birch of Lincolnshire, learned of the pair and their extreme poverty. He sold his entire collection for £400 and gave the entire proceeds to Mary to provide for the two women. This relieved their situation, but it did not relieve Mary of her fossil collecting.
Meanwhile, De la Beche’s gender and position allowed him to launch the British Geographical Survey and gave him entry into the Royal Society of London in 1823. He corresponded with such lights as the anatomist Georges Couvier. When Mary in 1824 recovered the nearly full skeleton of Plesiosaurus, an ancient marine reptile with a long neck and small head, Couvier at first refused to believe it. Geologist William Connybeare defended the find, however, and Couvier accepted the evidence. Mary thus acquired legitimacy for her work that prompted a note that same year in the diary of Lady Harriet Sivester, widow of the recorder for the city of London.
“(B)y reading and application she has arrived to that degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject,” the note read, “and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom.”
Again, in 1828, Mary discovered the fossil remains of Pterodactyl, a reptile that glided through the air. In some minds, the age of rocks seemed to threaten their belief in the Rock of Ages. People left churches in droves, but Mary never lost her faith in God and faithfully attended church. However, fossil hunters like her and geologists like De la Beche found themselves in the midst of a so-called Devonian Controversy. In 1830 De la Beche drew attention to this in an engraving called Duria Antiquior, or A More Ancient Dorset, in which he pictured many of the creatures of air and sea discovered by Mary in the cliffs and rocks at their base. Prints of the engraving were sold, with the money going to support Mary Anning.
William Buckland, the first professor of geology at Oxford, worked with Mary in a specialized kind of study, coprology, the study of fossilized feces. Mary had found stones up to four inches in length in ichthyosaur skeletons. She believed these were clumps of undigested food, and together the two scientists determined what the dinosaurs had eaten. Later Mary worked with Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz, who developed the concept of an Ice Age, and with Couvier, who believed periodic catastrophes had wiped out species.
During her many journeys to look for fossils, Mary brought a faithful dog to help her mark important finds while she looked for more. One day a rock slide killed the dog and gave her a glimpse of what she risked. After a close call herself in 1833, her close friend Anna Maria Pinney wrote, “The word of God is becoming precious to her after the late accident, being nearly crushed to death. I found it healing her mind.”
Mary Anning, alleged to have been the topic of the tongue twister “she sells sea shells by the seashore,” died of breast cancer at age 47. Shortly before she died she said that she found in a lifetime of fossil collecting a “connection of analogy between the creatures of the former and present world.” By then she had not only contributed tremendously to the studies of paleontology and geology but had provided a foundation for the theory of evolution in Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, scarcely a decade after her death.
Josefowicz, Dr. Diane. “Sir Henry Thomas de la Beche (1796-1855), geologist, paleontologist,” The
Victorian Web. http://www.victorianweb.org/science/geology/delabeche.html. Acquired 8/30/16.
“Mary Anning: Fossil Hunter.” National Council for Science Education.
https://ncse.com/library-resource/mary-anning-fossil-hunter. Acquired 8/30/16.
“Mary Anning (1799-1847).” The Dorset Page.
“Mary Anning (1799-1847).” University of California Museum of Paleontology.
http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/history/anning.html. Acquired 8/30/16.