Mary Anning was a wonderfully fascinating 19th Century female fossilist in Lyme Regis, who helped to change the way scientists look at the world
Mary Anning has been mentioned as being in consideration as one of the historical figures to be printed on the new £50 notes, and she has been part of our culture for centuries, Mary is the lady behind the “she sells sea shells on the sea shore” children’s rhyme!
Mary lived in Lyme Regis, making a living by searching the cliffs and beach in Lyme Bay for fossils and selling them to wealthy scholars and collectors. She also took these scholars on excursions around the Bay and even consulted with them on anatomy and classification. She managed to carve a career doing what she loved during a time when women struggled for independence.
Mary’s discoveries were some of the most important geological finds of all time, they provided evidence which was central in developing new ideas about the geological history of the Earth and what happened to create our landscapes. During the 19th Century, women were not allowed to vote, hold public office or attend university and the Geological Society of London did not allow women to become members or attend meetings. Mary was seen as an outsider within the scientific community of the age, she did however become well thought of and was eventually held in high regard by a few influential members of the society.
Mary actually knew a lot more about fossils than the wealthy scholars she sold to. They would buy the fossil and listen to her analysis, they would then publish it as their own finding and never credit Mary. This was actually a common pattern in the 19th Century against working class people, with many fossils being found by construction workers or quarrymen, who would then sell to weather collections, who in turn were credited with the find if they were of scientific value. Mary grew tired and angry about this and frequently wrote about her frustrations to friends and in her diary.
Although Mary was not allowed to be part of the societies or scientific community, she did manage to carve a name for herself with a number of high profile discoveries, a lot of hard work and her seemingly endless knowledge.
Mary Anning’s discoveries came at a time when there was little knowledge about the world outside of religious teachings, her geological findings shock the scientific community to the core. It made them start to think about the world slightly differently and look at alternative explanations for the changes that have occurred in the Earth.
Her very first famous discovery was in 1811 and was the fossil of an Ichthyosaurus skeleton found along the Lyme Bay cliffs. It was actually the first Ichthyosaurus skeleton to come to the attention of the scientific circles in London.
In 1823 Mary found an almost complete skeleton of a Plesiosaurus in Lyme Bay, it was then sold to William Conybeare who published his findings and neglected to mention Mary, not crediting her for the find much her frustration. However, in 1830, she found another complete Plesiosaurus skeleton and was credited for this find.
She also made a number of smaller, but still significant discoveries which greatly contributed to early Paleontology, including a number of fossilised ink chambers and the first Pterosaur skeleton found outside of Germany.
Mary was also a key role for scholars to visit Lyme Regis in search for excursions to the Bay, as well as offering consultations and classification advice to many in the societies.
hardships & passing
Mary was a little unlucky and had faced a number of financial hardships throughout her life. The worst came when she lost her life savings, around £300 (a huge sum in those days), to a bad investment. Her friend William Buckland persuaded the British Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as the Government, to award a civil list pension in return for her geological contributions. The £25 a year pension allowed her some security until her next geological find.
At 47 Mary passed away after suffering from breast cancer for around a year. The Geological community showed their high regard for Mary when they heard about her cancer diagnosis in 1846, they managed to raise money to help her with expenses for medical help and general living. The Dorset Museum also made her an honouree member.
After her death Mary was buried at St Michael’s Church, a deeply religious person, Mary was devout to her church throughout her life. The Geological community contributed to a stained glass window in her memory at St Michael’s Church, you can visit the church, gravesite and see the window today.
Mary was well thought of in the scientific community of this point, with her childhood and lifelong friend the President of the Geological Society. He wrote a eulogy which was published in the quarterly transactions, it was the first ever given to a woman, as this honour was only reserved for society members. Later on, Charles Dickens wrote an article about her life and hardships, emphasising all the difficulties she overcame to make a name for herself.
Mary Anning created a career and status for herself, by hard work and relentless self-teaching of fossils. Finding fantastic geological specimens along the Jurassic Coast in Lyme Regis cemented her story and her knowledge ensured her legacy.
Why not spend the day scouring Lyme Bay for any fossils Mary may have missed? You can learn more about Mary at the Lyme Regis Museum, which is only a short drive from our very own Hawkchurch Resort & Spa in South Devon, a 5 star luxurious location with first-class facilities like no other.
Relax in the soothing Hydrotherapy pool, or soak up the heat in the sauna and steam room, before indulging in a luxurious Aromatherapy Associates treatment at our on-park Ezina Spa. Grab a bite to eat at our Bistro Restaurant and sit back with a drink from our fully stocked bar, or hit the weights in our state-of-the-art gym.
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