As the tide rolls out, a woman in a hardened bonnet and loose fitting clothes scrambles across the crumbling cliffs of Lyme Regis, a large sack flung over her back, and pick axe in hand. She is Mary Anning, out on the hunt for fossils to sell in order to earn enough money to eat, and before her fifteenth birthday, her discoveries will challenge all established wisdom about the Earth’s geologic past and the immutability of species.
Born in 1799, her youth was the stuff of a Gothic novel. She was named after a sibling who had died in a horrendous freak fire a year previously, and when just an infant herself, the woman who was carrying her was struck by lightning, killed instantly while her young charge only seemed to thrive the more after the near brush with death. Mary’s father was a carpenter who had outraged no less a personage than Jane Austen by asking for an exorbitant fee for repairing a box. Really though, carpentry was the last thing he wanted to do – his dream was of a respectable shop that sold fossils to the tourists of Lyme Regis. Every morning, he took his two children (the only two that survived out of ten births – a dismal record of infant mortality even by Georgian standards) out to the cliffs, among the crashing waves and perilous rock slides, to hunt fossils with him.
That father died when Mary was only eleven years old and her mother, paralyzed by the loss of her husband on top of the eight children she had to bury, was unable to summon the wherewithal to feed and house her family, and so the children took it upon themselves to continue their father’s dream, dragging the beach every morning for promising fossils, and selling them to wealthy tourists. The proceeds were enough to keep the family from starving, if just barely.
These fossils were small scale curiosities – puzzling ammonites and arrowheads that were pleasing to look at, but certainly didn’t raise any grand questions about the Christian conception of species creation. It would be Mary Anning’s place to discover the monstrous and inexplicable remains of our planet’s deep past which shocked the British public into a consternated muddle that paved the way for a radical new world view. And it all began when she was not yet a teenager. Out on a fossil hunt with her older brother, he came across a large skull which he directed his sister’s more concentrated attention to. Returning to his apprenticeship as an upholsterer, he left it to his sister to painstakingly unearth, over the course of a year, the rest of the skeleton. What emerged was unlike anything known to the scientific imagination – the remains of an Ichthyosaurus, a massive sea animal, seemingly part fish and part reptile, with large menacing eye sockets set in a four foot long skull.
The geological establishment went into ecstasies of panic and speculation, nearly all of which managed to avoid giving credit to the girl who had made it all possible. Women were not allowed to attend meetings of any scientific society in Great Britain at the time, and none of the men who made their fame on thrilling the public with tales of the new find felt it necessary to mention Mary Anning in their discourses, a pattern of opportunistic neglect that would plague Anning’s work the rest of her life.
Those in the know didn’t fail to travel to Lyme Regis to walk the shores with Mary and benefit from her experience and observations, paying pittances for her discoveries and then returning to London to take official credit for her work. In 1823, Anning, still fighting off daily poverty, made a second critical discovery when she unearthed the skeleton of a Plesiosaurus, whose dozens of vertebrae and massive paddle-like fins upset not only the best wisdom of the comparative anatomists, but ignited a wave of excitement in the London academic establishment that launched not a few careers, Mary’s not being among them. She made some desperately needed money on the initial sale, and then lingered again on the sidelines of the subsequent debate, consulted unofficially, and ignored publicly.
Which isn’t to say that her life was devoid of all kindness. In one of the great acts of decency in the history of science, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas James Birch, an amateur fossil collector, upon seeing the destitution in which Anning lived, resolved to sell off his entire, much beloved collection of geological rarities and give all of the proceeds to her and her family. The four hundred pounds that resulted from the sale saved Mary from having to sell her furniture to feed her mother and brother, and put her name in the public consciousness for the first time. Much later, a small annuity would be voted her by the geological establishment that had by then built itself quite unabashedly on the exploitation of her findings.
The geological establishment went into ecstasies of panic and speculation, nearly all of which managed to avoid giving credit to the girl who had made it all possible.
The discovery of two massive new species would have been enough for any man’s career, but Mary’s financial situation didn’t allow her time to rest. Money was always in short supply, and so Anning returned to the shore every day the weather allowed, amassing hours of field experience and geological discernment unapproachable by her more famous male counterparts. In 1828, she made possibly her most important discovery yet, the first full skeleton of a pterodactyl. Its monstrous proportions fascinated the public even as its implications for traditional theology terrified them.
The perfection and immutability of God’s creation were the unquestioned principles of all decent theology in nineteenth century England. The Ichthyosaurus and Plesiosaurus could be explained away as possibly still existing, somewhere in the dark unexplored depths of the ocean. But a gigantic flying lizard? Somebody would probably have noticed if they still existed. Anning’s pterodactyl represented a major piece of evidence that extinction was a fact, a principle that, once accepted, made Lyell’s observations about geological progression and Darwin’s later thoughts about species evolution all the more plausible. Illustrations of what Anning’s discoveries might have looked like, swimming through or gliding over the primordial oceans, fed a public frenzy of interest in the prehistoric world, leading to the establishment of natural history museums which undertook a broad-based public education effort on a scale before unimaginable.
Yet, Anning herself benefited but little from the mania for all things dinosaur in the 1830s. Economic woes forced her to sell her fossils at a tenth of what she could have asked twenty years earlier, and official recognition was still piecemeal and out of all proportion to the magnitude of her discoveries and knowledge. On a personal level, she yearned for a great love, but hours and years spent stooping all day over rock formations had given her a sun-baked, cracked countenance that inspired no suitor, and she would die of breast cancer alone at the age of 48 after two years of continual pain. The British geological establishment, perhaps feeling guilty about its habit of crediting themselves for her discoveries, raised funds for a memorial stained glass window in her honor, and then quietly got about the business of forgetting her.
During her life, the notion of an Age of Reptiles shook the religious sensibilities of the nation. The Reverend William Kirby couldn’t imagine such a thing – “Who can think that a being of unbounded power, wisdom, and goodness should create a world merely for the habitation of a race of monsters, without a single rational being in it to glorify and serve him!” Absurd today, this represented a cogent argument against Anning’s work in her own time, one that would only begin to wither towards the end of her life. She herself was thoroughly devout, spending her last years copying down pages of sermons, and reflecting on the benevolent but unsanctioned deity of her Dissenter parents. How she reconciled the work of her hands with the hopes of her heart isn’t recorded, lost in the murky disregard which characterizes everything surrounding her vitally important but woefully under-documented life. What is undisputable is her place at the very foundation of the modern geological revolution. Her unflagging devotion to unearthing the past and accurately cataloguing its secrets were the fuel of a giddy academic paradigm shift, and if we have time to thank Darwin for having revealed our past honestly to ourselves, perhaps, now and then, we can spare a moment to thank Mary Anning as well, the woman who first made Europe take its monstrous ancestors seriously.
FURTHER READING: There is a fair amount of juvenile literature about Mary Anning’s life, but for a full, mature telling of her life, you’ll want Shelley Emling’s The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World. It is by turns irresistible and irritating – the account of Mary’s work and the use it was put to by the nascent British geological community is exciting and invaluable. The tendency, however, to pad out the book with subjunctive-encrusted musings about what Mary perhaps might have thought or done on a given occasion, surely, or at least maybe, gets very distracting as the book moves on. Still, it’s an engaging peek into the pre-Darwin geological scene centered on one of its unsung and central foot soldiers, and should be read by anybody with even a passing interest in evolution or paleontology.
About the image: Portrait of Mary Anning with her dog Tray and the Golden Cap outcrop in the background, Natural History Museum, London. This painting was owned by her brother Joseph, and presented to the museum in 1935 by Miss Annette Anning. This work is in the public domain via wikimedia.org.