Mary Anning and the Hunt of Primeval Monsters.

mary_anning_plesiosaurus

Autograph letter concerning the discovery of plesiosaurus, from Mary Anning (From Wikimedia Commons)

Since the End of the 17th century to the beginning of the 19th, several discoveries of dinosaur remains and other large extinct ‘saurians’, were reported for first time. It was an exciting time full of discoveries and the concept of an ancient Earth became part of the public understanding. The most popular aspect of geology was  the collecting of fossils and minerals and the nineteenth-century geology, often perceived as the sport of gentlemen, was in fact, “reliant on all classes”.

The study of the Earth became central to the economic and cultural life of the Victorian Society and Literature influenced the pervasiveness of geological thinking. The Geological Society of London was founded on 13 October 1807 at the Freemasons’ Tavern, in the Covent Garden district of London, with the stated purpose of “…making geologists acquainted with each other, of stimulating their zeal, of inducing them to adopt one nomenclature, of facilitating the communications of new facts and of ascertaining what is known in their science and what remains to be discovered”. During this time, women were free to take part in collecting fossils and mineral specimens, and they were allowed to attend lectures but they were barred from membership in scientific societies. However, it was common for male scientists to have women assistants, often their own wives and daughters.

Plesiosaurus battling Temnodontosaurus (Oligostinus), front piece the Book of the Great Sea-Dragons by Thomas Hawkins.

Plesiosaurus battling Temnodontosaurus (Oligostinus), front piece the Book of the Great Sea-Dragons by Thomas Hawkins.

Mary Anning (1799-1847), was an special case. Despite her lower social condition, Mary became the most famous ‘fossilist’ of her time. She was born on Lyme Regis on May 21, 1799. Her father was a carpenter and an amateur fossil collector who died when Mary was eleven. He trained Mary and her brother Joseph in how to look and clean fossils. After the death of her father, Mary and Joseph used those skills to search fossils on the local cliffs,  that sold as “curiosities”. The source of the fossils was the coastal cliffs around Lyme Regis, one of the richest fossil locations in England and part of a geological formation known as the Blue Lias. The age of the formation corresponds to the Jurassic period. In 1811, she caught the public’s attention when she and her brother Joseph unearthed the skeleton of a ‘primeval monster’. They sold it for £23. Later, in 1819, the skeleton was purchased by Charles Koenig of the British Museum of London who suggested the name “Ichthyosaur” for the fossil.

On December 10, 1823, she discovered the first complete Plesiosaur skeleton at Lyme Regis in Dorset. The fossil was acquired by the Duke of Buckingham. Noticed about the discovery, George Cuvier wrote to William Conybeare suggesting that the find was a fake produced by combining fossil bones from different animals. William Buckland and Conybeare sent a letter to Cuvier including anatomical details, an engraving of the specimen and a sketch made by Mary Morland (Buckland’s wife) based on Mary Anning’s own drawings and they convinced Cuvier that this specimen was a genuine find. From that moment, Cuvier treated Mary Anning as a legitimate and respectable fossil collector and cited her name in his publications.

The holotype specimen of Dimorphodon macronyx found by Mary Anning in 1828 (From Wikimedia Commons)

On December of 1828, Mary found the first pterosaur skeleton outside Germany. William Buckland made the announcement of Mary’s discovery in the Geological Society of London and named Pterodactylus macronyx in allusion to its large claws. The skull of Anning’s specimen had not been discovered, but Buckland thought that the fragment of jaw in the collection of the Philpot sisters of Lyme belonged to a pterosaur.

In her later years, Mary Anning suffered some serious financial problems. She died of breast cancer on 9 March, 1847, at the age of 47. She was buried in the cemetery of St. Michaels. In the last decade of her life, Mary received  three accolades. The first was an annuity of £25, in return for her many contributions to the science of geology. The second was in 1846, when the geologists of the Geological Society of London organized a further subscription for her. The third accolade was her election, in July 1846, as the first Honorary Member of the new Dorset County Museum in Dorchester (Torrens, 1995). After her death, Henry de la Beche, Director of the Geological Survey and President of the Geological Society of London, wrote a very affectionate obituary published in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society on February 14, 1848, the only case of a non Fellow who received that honour.

References:

Davis, Larry E. (2012) “Mary Anning: Princess of Palaeontology and Geological Lioness,”The Compass: Earth Science Journal of Sigma Gamma Epsilon: Vol. 84: Iss. 1, Article 8.

Hugh Torrens, Mary Anning (1799-1847) of Lyme; ‘The Greatest Fossilist the World Ever Knew’, The British Journal for the History of Science Vol. 28, No. 3 (Sep., 1995), pp. 257-284. Published by: Cambridge University Press.

De la Beche, H., 1848a. Obituary notices. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, v. 4: xxiv–xxv.

Dickens, C., 1865. Mary Anning, the fossil finder. All the Year Round, 13 (Feb 11): 60–63.

 

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2 thoughts on “Mary Anning and the Hunt of Primeval Monsters.

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #30 | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Pingback: women and/in science Mary Anning – Marilena Parlati – Università di Padova

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