By the 19th century, the study of the Earth became central to the economic and cultural life of Great Britain. 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. England was ruled by an elite, and of course, these scholarly activities only occurred within the upper echelon of British society. Notwithstanding, the most famous fossilist of the 19th century was a women of a low social station: Mary Anning.
Mary Anning 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 that they sold as “curiosities”. The source of those fossils was the coastal cliffs around Lyme Regis, part of a geological formation known as the Blue Lias.
Invertebrate fossils, like ammonoids or belemnites, were the most common findings. But when Mary was 12, her brother Joseph found a skull protruding from a cliff and few month later, Mary found the rest of the skeleton. 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.
In 1819 the Annings were in considerable ﬁnancial difﬁculties. They were rescued by the generosity of Thomas James Birch (1768–1829), who arranged for the sale of his personal collection, largely purchased from the Annings, in Bullock’s Museum in London. The auction took place in May 1820, during which Georges Cuvier bought several pieces for the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle.
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.
In February 1850 Mary was honoured by the unveiling of a new window in the parish church at Lyme, funded through another subscription among the Fellows of the Geological Society of London, with the following inscription: “This window is sacred to the memory of Mary Anning of this parish, who died 9 March AD 1847 and is erected by the vicar and some members of the Geological Society of London in commemoration of her usefulness in furthering the science of geology, as also of her benevolence of heart and integrity of life.”
In 1865, Charles Dickens wrote an article about Mary Anning’s life in his literary magazine “All the Year Round”, where emphasised the difficulties she had overcome: “Her history shows what humble people may do, if they have just purpose and courage enough, toward promoting the cause of science. The inscription under her memorial window commemorates “her usefulness in furthering the science of geology” (it was not a science when she began to discover, and so helped to make it one), “and also her benevolence of heart and integrity of life.” The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.”
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Dickens, C., 1865. Mary Anning, the fossil finder. All the Year Round, 13 (Feb 11): 60–63.