Frenemies: Mary Anning’s Relationships

How Mary Anning’s relationships helped, and hindered, her paleontology prowess.

(Cover image: Henry De la Beche’s painting of Anning, Public Domain)

Mary Anning owed her aptitude as a paleontologist to her friends and colleagues. Her closest allies would also prevent her from fully participating in the scientific community because of their sexist beliefs.

We are products of our relationships. Our successes and failures are the result of our interactions with others. Our work is inspired by those who have come before us. Anning was no different. I don’t mean to demean her accomplishments, or claim, like many of her contemporaries did, that she was not as adept as the men she worked with.

Instead, I want to describe how five of Anning’s closest friends shaped her as a paleontologist and person, how their works inform us today about Anning, and how they directly hindered her from full participation in the geological community.

In these more personal stories, I will paint a picture of a Mary Anning we don’t often hear about. We often fall into hero worship with Anning and forget to discuss how she was a person, not a paleontology robot designed for maximum fossil extraction efficiency. 

This is part 2 of my series on Mary. You can find part 1 here.


The stone cliffs of the beach at Lyme Regis showing interbedded thin shale and thicker, blocky limestone

Richard Anning

(photo: “Blue Lias Clifsfs at Lyme Regis” MichaelMaggs, Wikimedia commons, CC BY-SA 2.5)

Mary Anning’s father Richard was most responsible for her becoming a paleontologist.

Richard Anning was a carpenter, but he quickly took notice to the wealthy urbanites who visited the beaches of Lyme Regis and their fondness for the fossils washed up on the shore. It was Richard who started the fossil selling business Mary would later take over1.

In an era where girls were expected to stay home and learn housework, Richard was adamant that young Mary accompany him on his forays out onto the rocky shores. The father and daughter duo also worked tirelessly in the dim, dusty fossil shop preparing the fossils for display1. It is likely some of Richard’s business acumen rubbed off on Mary1.

Richard’s untimely death when Mary was 11 would act as a catalyst for the young Anning’s rise as a paleontologist. Mary was left without her primary source of income and her closest friend and mentor. She turned to the only thing she knew: selling fossils1.

Mary Anning owed her stubbornness, tenacity, and skill at finding and polishing fossils to her early years crawling across slippery slopes with her father. Without him, Mary would never have had the chance to become a paleontologist.


A sketch of a plesiosaur skeleton fossil that Anning found

Elizabeth Philpot

(Image: Public Domain)

While Mary’s father led her down the path of becoming a paleontologist, it was Elizabeth Philpot, Mary’s close friend, who encouraged her to become a studied scientist.

Elizabeth and her sisters were also successful fossil sellers. Philpot noticed Mary’s aptitude for paleontology and encouraged her to study the subject1.

It’s also possible that Philpot’s higher class status allowed Mary to be introduced to more wealthy patrons who could pay the hefty fortunes for her fossils. It is very likely that Elizabeth’s standing made many of the chance meetings between Anning and Europe’s rich and famous possible1.

I use words like “possible” and “likely” because we do not know that for certain that Philipot introduced Anning to her wealthy benefactors. However it is certain that the Philpot family had better connections because they came from higher class standing than the Annings, and being friends with Philpot certainly would have provided Anning with new fossil selling opportunities.

Philpot and Anning became close friends over the years, but they were also scientific colleagues. Elizabeth and Mary were both adept at geology, and the two worked together to supplement their independent fossil collections1,2

In Elizabeth, Mary found someone who helped her overcome some of the roadblocks put in place due to classism and sexism that otherwise would have stifled her early rise in science.


Lithograph portrait of Henry De la Beche wearing glasses and a field coat with a rock hammer

Henry De la Beche

(Image: Public Domain)

Henry De la Beche shaped Anning as a scientist and played a large role in who she was as a person.

De la Beche first met Anning when they were both teens1. Young Henry spent his time hunting for fossils with Mary and her brother. Henry’s passion for geology rubbed off on Mary and the two became quick friends. However, unlike Anning, Henry was not held back by the sexist scientific community and quickly rose to prominence in the budding Geologic Society of London, and soon became England’s first professional geologist.1

De la Beche’s famous watercolor painting, Duria Antiquior,  would strengthen Mary’s stardom. The painting vividly showed aquatic reptiles battling in the depths for supremacy while webbed-winged pterosaurs swoop and soar overhead. It was one of the first “true life” representations of the fossil record, and it excited the general community in the mysteries being unearthed by Anning. 

Painting of how De la Beche envisioned the ichthyosaurs, pterosaurs, ammonites, and fish that Anning unearthed
Duria Antiquior : De la Beche’s watercolor painting of Anning’s fossil finds. Illustrated are: ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, fish, ammonites, belemnites, and pterosaurs. (Public Domain)

De la Beche was a mixed blessing for Mary. He omitted her from most of his scientific publications, even when they included her work1,3. However, he also defended Mary’s scientific claims on her behalf. Anning was not allowed to even sit in on GSL meetings, and De la Beche was often the first to step up and argue the importance and veracity of her scientific discoveries1.

He also eulogized Anning following her death. In his address, De la Beche commented on Anning’s hard work, immense knowledge, and pointed out how, without her meticulous preparation and sketches, the society would never have been able to publish their great works1,4.

De la Beche represents the commonly held beliefs of the paleontological community at the time: Mary Anning was an amazingly talented paleontologist who made great contributions, but because she was a woman, she was not welcome into their societies.


Portrait of William Buckland wearing academic robes and holding a fossil skull

William Buckland

(Image: Public Domain)

Although Mary was famous as a fossil collector from an early age, she owes her notoriety as scientist to William Buckland. Buckland was also a major reason she never was officially welcomed into the paleontological academia.

Buckland, Oxford’s first geology professor, met Anning when she was 16 years old1. Buckland quickly became a scientific mentor to young Anning and he taught her about geology and paleontology1

Anning and Buckland together made many discoveries, some of which I outlined in part 1. Because of their relationship, Buckland convinced the British Academy of Sciences to provide her with a stipend, an exceedingly rare honor for a woman at the time1

Image of a fossil ichthyosaur with coprolites in its skeletal cavity
Buckland’s sketch of Anning’s ichthyosaur fossil with coprolitites. Digitized from University of Oxford Bodleian Libraries (www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/dbooks). CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Buckland arguably did the most to hold Anning back from her true potential. He often used Anning’s fossils to argue his points without giving her credit. Buckland was named president of the nascent Geological Society of London in 1824, but refused to allow Mary to join. Women were not allowed to even attend meetings much less contribute. Despite their close relationship, Buckland refused to change the rules to allow Mary to even attend as a visitor1

Without Buckland, Anning would not have been as successful as she was, but also because of him she was held back because of his overt sexism and classism. 


Fossil skull of an ichthyosaur

Anna Pinney

(Image: Public Domain)

We know most about Mary’s personality from her relationship with Anna Pinney.

Pinney was much younger than Anning, Anna was in her teens and Mary her mid 30’s. Despite their difference in age, Anning spent most of her time with Pinney later in her life. The two were often seen together hunting the shores for fossils1.

Pinney wrote some amazing characterizations of Anning in her journals. According to Pinney’s detailed and lengthy writings Mary was unafraid, crass, and at times offensive1. Pinney’s writings paint a picture of a woman who was incredibly brave, intelligent, and hard working. Anning was often arrogant and prone to anger, but would always help out those in need in Lyme Regis1.

Tragically, Anna wrote that Mary struggled with depression, which according to Pinney, resulted from a “deep, emotional hurt”1. Anna Pinney paints a much more nuanced picture of Anning than we normally see in modern representations. We see more clearly Mary Anning the person not just Mary Anning the fossil hunter.

Interestingly, Pinney also described how Anning felt about being left out of the paleontological establishment. Anna wrote in her journal:

“She says the world has used her ill … these men of learning have sucked her brains, and made a great deal of publishing works, of which she furnished the contents, while she derived none of the advantages.”

Anna Pinney1

I chose to highlight Anna Pinney because through her writings we see a part of Anning we often ignore. She, like all paleontologists, was a complex person. While she was witty and kind, she could also be rude, crass, and quick to anger. However, it was these qualities that made her successful.


Conclusion

Mary Anning owed her success as a paleontologist to the many people who helped her along the way. However, even her close friends and mentors often worked against her.

I wanted to tell the story of Anning’s relationships with these five people because they provide us a more complete picture of who Anning was. Most stories of Anning focus on what she did, listing her achievements off like the ammonites that haphazardly cluttered her fossil shop.

By telling the stories of those she was closest with, we start to see Anning as not just a scientist, but a person too.

Thanks again for reading! I’ll have the third, and final, part of Anning’s story posted soon. I will focus on the historicity of Anning: the myths that were build up around her and how her legacy was shaped in the past and today.

Feel free to contact me if you have any feedback!

Part of my “Founding Five” diverse paleontologists

References

  1. Emling, S. (2009). The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World. United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan.
  2. Edmonds, J. M. (1976). The Fossil Collection of the Misses Philpot of Lyme Regis. Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archeological Society, 98: 43.
  3. Torrens, Hugh (1995), “Mary Anning (1799–1847) of Lyme; ‘The Greatest Fossilist the World Ever Knew'”, The British Journal for the History of Science, 25 (3): 257–284.
  4. Lang, W. D., Anning, M. (1938). Mary Anning (1799-1847) and the Pioneer Geologists of Lyme: IN: Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History & Archaeological Society 60 1938 P142-164. 

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