Mary Anning was born in 1799 to Richard and Mary Anning of Lyme Regis, situated on the southern shores of Great Britain.


Mary Anning was born May 21, 1799 to Richard and Mary Anning of Lyme Regis, two years after her brother Joseph. Richard and Mary had as many as ten children, but only  Mary and Joseph, reached maturity.

The cliffs at Lyme Regis were -- and still are -- rich in spectacular fossils from the seas of the Jurassic period. Richard was a cabinetmaker and occasional fossil collector. On a table in front of his shop in Bridge Street he displayed these curiosities, known locally as ‘crocodile bones”, “Indies fingers” and “John Dories”. There was no shortage of customers, for since the opening of the nearby Dorchester to Exeter turnpike in 1758, Lyme had become a very popular holiday place for fashionable people especially from Bath. Jane Austen mentioned him in her diary of 1804.

The Annings were Congregationalists, but Mary's father, Richard, scandalized even other Nonconformists by searching for "curiosities" on Good Friday and other holy days. Mr. Anning raised eyebrows too, by taking his children where landslides could kill without warning.

We know little about the curriculum at the Dissenters school she attended briefly, but one thing she read, the Congregationalists' Theological Magazine and Review for 1801, provides a glimpse of the religious world of her childhood.  One essay insisted God created the universe in six literal days. Mary also read, however, a model curriculum for Nonconformist schools urging Dissenters to study geology.

Unfortunately, Richard died of consumption in 1810, leaving his family in debt without a provider. Mary and Joseph decided to carry on selling these curiosities to passers-by. Ever since they could remember, the two children had accompanied their father along the beach collecting fossils: they were well able to continue this in spite of their young ages. A decision which later proved fortuitous for the fledgling field of paleontology

Ichthyosaurus looked like a fish, swam like a fish but, in fact, was a reptile, though not a dinosaur.

It was the same year, 1810, that her brother uncovered the massive fossilized head of what he thought was a crocodile, but it was to be another year before tides and weather permitted further investigation. It was Mary who then uncovered the rest of what was to be the first complete Ichthyosaurus seen. (A few fragments had been discovered over a century earlier by the Welsh naturalist, Llhyd, and fully described in his book Lithosphylacii Britannia Iconographia, published in 1699.) Mary sold the fossil for £23 to the nearby Lord of the Manor of Colway, Mr. Henry Henley. He exhibited it in William Bullock’s Museum of Natural History in Piccadilly, and a full description of it was published in the Transactions of the Royal Society in 1814.

It was about this time that Mary was greatly encouraged by a boy, Henry de la Beche, not much older than herself, and who was to become a lifelong friend. His educated background complemented Mary’s practical experience and willingness to find the fossils.

Money was still very short in the Anning home, and Mary and her family were barely making a living in spite of her discovery of the Ichthyosaurus. It was now that another man came to their financial rescue. While paying frequent visits to Charmouth, professional fossil collector Lieutenant-Colonel Birch of Lincolnshire came to know the family and sympathized with their desperate financial situation.

Birch decided to hold an auction to sell off all of his fine fossil collection and donate the proceeds to the Anning family. He felt that the Annings should not live in such "considerable difficulty" considering that they have "found almost all the fine things, which have been submitted to scientific investigation...".  he sold his large collection of fossils for £400 and gave the entire proceeds to Mary. This helped to put the twenty-year-old Mary Anning on her feet, and she never looked back.

Up to this point mother Mary was running the business end of fossil collecting. By the middle of the 1820s, daughter Mary had established herself as the keen eye and accomplished anatomist of the family, and began taking charge of the family fossil business. Joseph was, by this time, committed to a career in the upholstery business, and no longer collected fossils.

In 1824 came Mary’s next “first”, an almost perfect fossilized skeleton of a Plesiosaurus, a similar-sized reptile to the Ichthyosaurus but with an elongated neck and very small head, described at the time as  "a serpent pulled through a turtle". This specimen was sold for over £100 to the Duke of Buckingham.

The famous French anatomist, Georges Cuvier, doubted the validity of the specimen when he first examined a detailed drawing. Once Cuvier realized that this was a genuine find, the Annings became legitimate and respected fossilists in the eyes of the scientific community.

Many scientists of the day however, could not believe that a young woman from such a deprived background could posses the knowledge and skills that she seemed to display. For example, in 1824, Lady Harriet Sivester, the widow of the former Recorder of the City of London, wrote in her diary after visiting Mary Anning:

". . . the extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she has made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong. She fixes the bones on a frame with cement and then makes drawings and has them engraved. . . It is certainly a wonderful instance of divine favour - that this poor, ignorant girl should be so blessed, for by 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, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom."

Lady Sivester's praise is high, but note that "divine favour" is invoked to explain how such a woman could possibly be so knowledgeable. It is clear, however, that Anning was not only a collector, but was well-versed in the scientific understanding of what she collected, and won the respect of the scientists of her time.

In 1828 came the third of Mary’s “firsts”. This time it was the flying (or rather gliding) reptile, a Pterodactyl, a land animal whose remains are rare even now.

Many of Mary Anning's grateful customers were upper class English geologists. When hard financial times dropped Anning's sales around 1830, one of those geologists, the aforementioned Henry De la Beche, drew a cartoon designed to inspire interest in her finds. Named Dura antiquior ("an earlier Dorset"), this lively depiction was converted to a lithograph and sold to many members of the Geological Society of London.

Mary Anning appears to have had an abrasive nature though, taking likes and dislikes to people: in 1832 she was described as “a prim, pedantic, vinegar-looking, thin female, shrewd and rather satirical in her conversation”.  It was in this year that Mary was fortunate to find an even larger specimen of Ichthyosaurus - the one on view in the Natural History Museum in London.

Mary's faith helped her take risks on crumbling cliffs. Her friend, Anna Maria Pinney, who earlier noted her piety, wrote in 1833 that after several close calls,

"The word of God is becoming precious to her after her late accident, being nearly crushed to death. I found it healing her mind."

Her faith however was no help to mans best friend. Whenever she found a good fossil, she left her dog behind to mark the spot until she returned with others who could help her dig the goods out of the ground. The dog served her diligently until he was killed in a rockfall.

For most of her adult life, Mary Anning lived in reasonable comfort, first in Bridge Street and then in Broad Street, but she was never a wealthy woman. She was known to complain of the many people who visited her to pick her brains of her knowledge of fossils, and then went away to write of it to their pecuniary advantage while she - the supplier of the information - received nothing.

She seems to have spent the whole of her life in Lyme Regis (with the exception of one brief visit to London), dedicating herself to collecting fossils, analyzing them, and acquiring a vast knowledge on the subject plus, of course, still continuing to sell them in her shop. She received many visitors of high scientific intellect, and from her letters it appears that she thoroughly enjoyed debating with them. She enjoyed their visits and gave them any help she could quite willingly: she also maintained a large correspondence with people from further a field. This was many years before Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was published and yet, from her letters, it seems that Mary was already thinking along the same lines herself.

While Mary Anning found comfort in the Bible, her work disturbed others. Earlier, geology had seemed a safe subject for Dissenters; John Gleed, her pastor from 1818 to 1828, supplemented his salary by selling fossils. By the 1830s, many clerics feared geology. Extinction was deeply upsetting to those who read Genesis as requiring every species ever created to be alive still. By the early 1830s, it seemed clear reptiles once filled land, sea and sky. As fossil discoveries undermined faith in Genesis as literal history, people across England left churches in droves. Lyme's Independent Chapel, once one of the most respected Dissenter congregations in Dorset, nearly disbanded during the 1830s. Mary occasionally contributed financially to the chapel, as it suffered schism and disappointing pastors, but shifted allegiance to the Anglicans.

Mary's mother died in 1842 and for the first time in her life she was living alone. In her last few years it began to be rumored that she had taken to the bottle, but sadly this was a misinterpretation of the fact that she was taking larger and larger doses of laudanum to deaden the pain of breast cancer. On March 9, 1847 she died of this disease, Her body was laid to rest in the graveyard of St. Michael the Archangel Church in Lyme Regis. Her brother, who became church warden in 1846, was buried beside her in 1849. Raised Congregationalists, they ended up Anglicans.

In July 1846, a few months before her death, Mary Anning was made an honorary member of the Geological Society - of whom her life-long friend Sir Henry de la Beche was now the President - in recognition of the help she had given to many geologists during her life-time. The Royal Society contributed to a stained-glass window to her memory in the Parish Church at Lyme. It is very surprising that there is no statue to Mary Anning in Lyme Regis however, for apart from her scientific reputation, she has done much to attract visitors to Lyme in the century and a half since her death.

 

   
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