William A.S. Sarjeant, Department of Geological Sciences, University of Saskatchewan
If one were to name the most famous English fossil collector of the early nineteenth century, the only possible answer would be "Mary Anning". She is also the first woman to achieve true fame in geology and, until recently, the only woman whose portrait hung on the walls of the Geological Society's rooms in Piccadilly, London. She was also the first to be honoured by having a full-scale geological meeting dedicated to her memory; it was held on the bicentenary of her birth, in her home town of Lyme Regis, Dorset, on three June days in 1999, and attracted a considerable local, national and international participation.
The story of Mary Anning is well, if vaguely known; that, upon the death of her father Richard Anning, a cabinet-maker and part-time fossil collector, little Mary shouldered the burden of supporting her widowed mother and siblings by taking up the task of collecting fossils, for sale to eminent London gentlemen; that she made a name for herself by finding the first complete fossil Ichthyosaurus; and that her subsequent discoveries - among them, a splendid Plesiosaurus and what was to be the type specimen of the earliest pterodactyl yet discovered (Dimorphodon) added further luster to her image, until she became the foremost citizen - and foremost sight for visitors! - of Lyme Regis. It is also recalled that she would set her dog to guard promising specimens while she fetched labourers to excavate them, that she never married, and that she died before reaching her 50th birthday.
As with most popular conceptions of historic events and persons, this is not altogether wrong, yet not altogether right. Recent delvings into documentation, in particular by Hugh Torrens (1995), have forced a number of revisions to the classic picture. Now we must recognize other members of the Anning family were active in the fossil business and that, disconcertingly, there was not just one Mary Anning, but three!
The first was Richard's wife, formerly Mary Moore of Blandford, Dorset, whom he married on 8 August 1793. (She was to be the longest-lived of the three Marys, born around 1764 and dying in 1842; for the sake of clarity, I shall follow Hugh's example and hereinafter style her ÔMolly'). The couple had perhaps as many as ten children, the eldest to survive being Joseph (1796-1849). Their second child was named Mary, after her mother; she, poor soul, was the shortest-lived of the three Marys, born around 1794 and perishing in a house-fire at Lyme Regis in 1798. When a third child, and second daughter, was born in 1799, Richard and Molly gave her the same name, Mary.
Such a procedure seems now rather macabre, but it was not unusual in the late 18th and early 19th century; for example, the great French anatomist, Cuvier, though christened with a string of other names, was known life-long by that of a deceased elder brother, as Georges.
The second Mary had by accident died young; the third came close to doing so when only fourteen months old. During a sudden thunderstorm that interrupted a cavalry display, a woman called Elizabeth Haskings took the infant Mary and two other children to shelter under a tree. When that tree was struck by lightning, the woman and the two elder children were killed; little Mary was the only survivor.
(RIGHT) Plesiosaur found at Lyme Regis.
Richard Anning died in November 1810, at the age of 44; he was suffering from consumption (i.e. tuberculosis) and a fall from a cliff proved too much for him, in his weakened condition. He left his family in debt to the tune of £120, an enormous sum in those days, and they were on parish relief for at least five years thereafter. The finding and sale of the Ichthyosaurus undoubtedly did help. However, it was brother Joseph, not Mary, who first discovered the fossil bones on the foreshore below Black Ven, close to Lyme Regis, in 1811; Mary's contribution was that she discovered the rest of the skeleton almost a year later, in 1812. It was sold to the Lord of the Manor, Henry Henley, for a handsome £23, and by Mr. Henley to William Bullock, for exhibition in the latter's London Museum of Natural History. Long considered a fossil crocodile, its very different character was recognized by Charles Koenig in 1817, when he named it Ichthyosaurus communis. The specimen found a final home when the British Museum purchased Bullock's collection in 1819; the Ichthyosaurus was bought for £47.50.
There can be no question that, following Richard Anning's death, his bereaved family came to rely on fossil collecting for much of their income; but, for more than a decade, it was a family endeavour, with both Joseph and Mary actively collecting and mother Molly handling the marketing of fossils from their little shop in Lyme. It was only in 1825, when Joseph (having completed a lengthy apprenticeship) became a full-time upholsterer, that Mary became the dominant figure in the fossil-hunting business.
Neither had the efforts of the two younger children brought them prosperity; as a letter quoted by Torrens (1995, p. 261) makes clear, by 1819 they had come close to entire destitution "after had having not found one good fossil in near a twelve-month" - a destitution from which they were rescued by the generosity of the fossil collector Lt. Col. Thomas J. Birch (1768-1829), who arranged a sale of his collection, largely purchased from te Annings on their behalf at Bullock's museum in London. This not only netted them over £400.00, but also gave the Annings' business high-profile publicity; indeed, it was the true turning-point in their fortunes. Henceforward, collectors from many towns and countries would be travelling to Lyme Regis, to buy fossils from the Annings.
It was from the years 1824 and 1825, then, that we should date Mary Anning's rise to palaeontological eminence. Already there had been other discoveries of ichthyosaur bones; an especially fine specimen was discovered in 1821 and sold to the Bristol Institution. The famous Plesiosaurus, initially mistaken for a turtle, was found by Mary on 10 December 1823; a spectacularly complete belemnite, with "anterior sheath and inkbag" (Buckland, 1829a) in 1828; the pterodactyl, originally named Pterodactylus macronyx by Buckland (1929b), was found in 1828; a fish considered intermediate between sharks and rays, Squaloraja, in December 1829; and another, especially fine plesiosaur of a new kind in December 1830; this was sold for an unprecedented 200 guineas and later named Plesiosaurus macrocephalus. There were many lesser discoveries, so that specimens collected by the Annings are to be found - albeit often uncredited - in most major European, and some North American, collections.
Molly Anning died in 1842, Mary in 1847 from breast cancer. Both deserve to be honoured, yet one is almost forgotten and the other elevated to become a palaeontological (and feminist?) icon (see Watney, 1931; Elder 1982). Yes, Mary was the most important collector and deserves the greater fame. However, it has been exaggerated by many of her biographers, who have elevated her childhood discoveries to the plane of unreality in a plethora of books, mostly well illustrated but factually unreliable (Forde, 1925; Bush, 1960; Blair, 1975 and the novelizations by Day, 1991; Cole, 1991; Stinton, 1995; Anholt, 1999; Atkins, 1999; and Hartzog, 1999); only one is reasonably reliable (Brown, 1999).
(LEFT) Ichthyosaur skull, Lyme Regis.
In the process, the contributions of Molly and Joseph have been unjustly forgotten. It is good that Torrens's careful study (1995) and the papers presented at the Lyme Regis meeting of 1999 are at last bringing them back into scientific memory.
Anholt, Laurence, 1999. Stone Girl, Bone Girl. New York: Orchard Books, 32 pp.
Atkins, Jeannine, 1999. Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, unpaginated.
Blair, Ruth van Ness, 1975. Mary's Monster. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc., 64 pp.
Brown, Don, 1999. Rare Treasure. Mary Anning and her Remarkable Treasures. Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Co., unpaginated.
Buckland, William, 1829a. Fossil sepia. London and Edinburgh philosophical Magazine, vol. 5, p. 388.
Buckland, William, 1829b. On the discovery of a new species of pterodactyle in the Lias at Lyme Regis. Transactions of the Geological Society of London. Ser. 2, vol. 3, pp. 217- 222.
Bush, Helen B., 1960. Treasures in the Rock. Toronto: Longmans, 132 pp. (Republ. 1967 as Mary Anning's Treasures. London: Victor Gollancz, 128 pp. )
Cole, Sheila, 1991. The Dragon in the Cliff. A novel based on the life of Mary Anning. New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard Books, 212 pp.
Day, Marie, 1991. Dragon in the Rocks The Story of Young Mary Anning. Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y.: Greey, De Ponier Books [32 pp.]
Elder, Eleanor S., 1982. Women in early geology. Journal of Geological Education, vol. 30, no.5, pp. 64-81.
Forde, Harriott A., 1925. The Heroine of Lyme Regis: The Story of Mary Anning, the Celebrated Geologist. London: Wells, Gardner, Darton, ix+18 pp.
Hartzog, Brooke, 1999. Ichthyosaurus and Little Mary Anning. New York: Powerkids Press, 24 pp.
Koenig, Charles, 1817. Synopsis of the Contents of the British Museum. 11th edn. London: British Museum, p. 54.
Stinton, Judith, 1995. Under Black Ven. Mary Anning's Story. Tiverton, Devon: Dorset Books, 64 pp.
Torrens, Hugh S., 1995. Mary Anning (1799-1847) of Lyme; Ôthe greatest fossilist the world ever knew'. British Journal for the History of Science, vol. 28, pp. 257-284.
Watney, Marigold, 1931. The First Woman Geologist. The Morning Post, London, 4 February, p.8.