The Mary Anning we know today is mostly a myth.
(Image: public domain)
There was a person named Mary Anning who was a paleontologist in Lyme Regis in the 19th Century. She discovered a plethora of new fossil species and forever changed the way we see the world. There was also the Mary Anning we know today, the child prodigy and lonely romantic adult who happened to collect fossils.
What we know of Anning is largely the result of poorly referenced source material written decades after her death. Anning never published her own material, but she did write many personal letters and journals1, 2. Most of these were mishandled and lost.
One personal letter of Anning’s was marked by the British Museum as “lacking importance”1. Would they ever think of marking a letter of someone like Charles Lyell in the same way? Even Anning’s prized fossils, which had been coveted by museums throughout the world in her day, have largely been lost1.
This is exactly what I mean by “bias in the fossil record.” Anning was scrubbed from the historical record by biases which considered the letters from an uneducated, rural woman to be unimportant compared to those of wealthy, white men. Her legacy is still tarnished by these biases.
With the lack of a strong historical record, there was room for embellishment and myth making. Why do we primarily think of Anning as a lucky child prodigy? Why do we focus so much on her preteen discoveries and almost never discuss her work in her 30’s and 40’s?
Sexism and classism erased her from the record and impacted how we think of Anning today.
We often assume that any portrayal of a woman scientist is “representation.” Is it really representation of we rely on heavily mythologized versions of women that are not based in fact?.
Instead of focusing on made up romantic relationships (I’m looking at you Ammonite), we should instead celebrate who Anning was as a person. Her personhood made her an amazing scientist, and that is true representation.
She was not a simple-minded country woman selling seashells by the seashore.
Anning died tragically from breast cancer when she was only 47. Up until her death, she was a prodigious fossil hunter.
Anning made her most significant additions to paleontological collections in her later years, as evident by the amount of fossil material sent to museums1. There are many contemporary writings of her that highlight her many accomplishments and global notoriety as an expert fossilist1,2.
Up until her death, Anning still struggled to gain notoriety in the official paleontological community. Only two species were named after her, an honor that shows respect respect amongst peers. Louis Agassiz, who formulated the idea of Ice Ages, named two fish species after Anning1,2.
These would be the only species named after her until the 1920’s1.
Anning’s death marks a historical shift between Mary Anning, the competent and professional paleontologist, and Mary Anning, the country girl selling fossils who happened to find amazing things for men to publish.
I call this concept Anningiae, the honorific species name Agassiz gave to the fossils he named after her2.
According to the first historical writing of Anning, she was like Helen of Troy. She spurred paleontology into another great “Trojan War.”1 The Greeks in this story were the great 19th Century paleontologists who, guided by Anning, sailed from vast distances to do epic battle with the unknown and unlock the truth bound in cold, wet stone.
Even in her lifetime, Anning’s story was being shaped as heroic. These writings portray Anning as sort of a “paleo-superhero” who overcame great odds, was endowed by superhuman abilities, and achieved greatness.
The lack of solid source material about Mary’s life fed myth making as biographers filled in gaps in her story with context clues. For example, Mary’s mother and older sister were also named Mary. This likely confused most biographers, and Mary’s mother Mary may have actually been the one who ran the Anning family fossil shop1.
Anning was indeed an oddity for her time. As such she was a very popular subject of story telling. She was world famous, and it is not surprising that she quickly became idolized. Anning was the main attraction in Lyme Regis, drawing even more tourists than the beach1,2.
Most of Anning’s biographies tend to focus on her early finds and ignore her equally important discoveries from later in life1. These “juvenile” stories of Mary date back to a series of morality tracts written with Anning as a main character1. These stories were written for children, so it made sense to focus on a young Anning.
A Lyme Regis historian who lived contemporaneously with Anning wrote extensively of her early finds and omitted her later ones. It is possible this is due to an argument the two had that led to the historian conveniently omitting Anning later in his writings1.
The infantile myths of Anning became more widespread in the 1930’s, and the perpetuation of these myths likely was the result of gender and class bias1. It makes more sense to us that a poor, uneducated girl could, while mindlessly digging in the dirt, unearthed a lucky fossil. We find it much harder to believe that an adult rural woman could be a competent scientific professional.
The adult Anning is relegated to oftentimes salacious romanticism regarding the various men or women she was acquainted with. Even while she was alive, there were countless rumors that Anning was romantically involved with any number of her more wealthy male collogues2.
The movie Ammonite takes this further and concocts a homosexual relationship with Charlotte Murchison, the wife of geologist Roderick Murchison. While Mary and Charlotte were close friends, there is no evidence of any relationship between the two, or with any of her other supposed suitors, in any of the writings of Anning or her close friends1.
These romantic narratives are sexist in nature. Women cannot be just competent scientists; they have to be romantically involved with someone.
We still fall into these romantic tropes in storytelling. In the film Jurassic Park, some attention is paid to the troublesome relationship between Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler, who is likely a post-doc or research associate of Grant’s. We expect women to be someone’s romantic interest in our stories regardless of if it is true, makes sense, or is even appropriate.
Mary Anning was not a lucky amateur. She was a world-famous, competent geologist. People came from all around the globe to both purchase her fossils, but also to see Mary1. Even the King of Saxony visited Anning, to which Anning told him she was “famous throughout all of Europe.”2 Why then, was her legacy so obscured? Why did it take a modern renaissance for us to really appreciate Anning?
Mary Anning was not included in British historical records outside of a single biography published in 19251. She was not in any published record in the United States until after 19561. How did she go from being world famous to an afterthought?
Mary’s importance to the paleontological community was evident by the numerous eulogies by her colleagues. Even Charles Dickens wrote a lengthy eulogy for the late Anning2. Mary Anning was a 19th Century celebrity.
Anning’s importance to the local community of Lyme Regis is evident by a stained glass window in the local parish church. The window, shown below, illustrates Anning’s lifetime of public works for the community by showing her preforming the corporal works of mercy1.
Anning’s lack of publications certainly impaired her legacy compared to her well-published male peers. Because she did not actually write about her fossils, or officially name them, her more famous friends quickly pushed her out of the public spotlight. But it still does not explain how she went from being so famous to relegated to a series of morality tracts within a few decades.
By now you are probably yelling at the computer or phone, “It’s sexism!” Yes, I agree, and I thought it was too obvious to outright state. Mary Anning shows us that women can be amazing geoscientists. She also exemplifies how women and their accomplishments are wiped from the record.
The reason Anning’s works were lost was because nobody thought the accomplishments of a poor country woman were important. After all, how could she be responsible for all of these things the “Founding Fathers” of paleontology discovered?
The key point I want to make is we are still guilty of doing this!
Every time we write about the heroic girl of Lyme Regis who, against all odds, found an ichthyosaur on a cold, rocky beach, we amplify the sexist and classist Anningiae myth. When we say “I love Mary Anning!” but describe only her preteen exploits, we perpetuate the idea she was a lucky “country bumpkin.” When we shoehorn Anning into relationships for the sake of drama, we perpetuate sexist stereotypes that insist women can’t just be good scientists, they need to be love interests.
The real Anning was an amazing paleontologist. She was intelligent, scientifically adept and literate, and made important discoveries her entire life.
Mary Anning was truly, in the symbolic sense of the phrase, a founding father of paleontology.
Thank you for reading my series on Anning. I might come back to her in the future because the “real” Anning is so fascinating, as is the idea of how we mythologize women through bias even today when we attempt to “represent” them.
I want to reveal who is next on my “Founding Five” before I sign off (I’ll do this on social media too).
Next up, I will discuss Chinese geoscientist Shen Kuo, and I will argue that he is truly the first paleontologist.
Part of my “Founding Five” diverse paleontologists
- 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.
- Emling, S. (2009). The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World. United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan.