Mary Anning was an English palaeontologist, whose findings contributed to redefine scientific theories about the (pre-)history of life on Earth.
Featuring artwork & words by Dr. Eleonora Adami, Sci-Illustrate Stories. Set in motion by Dr. Radhika Patnala.
Mary Anning (1799–1847) was born in Lyme Regis, in the southwest English county of Dorset. Discoveries are still being made in this area, now part of the so-called the Jurassic Coast; and at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, Lyme Regis was a tourist hotspot, as fossil hunting was gaining traction among fashionable Georgians and because civilians were encouraged to not spend their holidays abroad.
Mary was born into a poor family of religious dissenters. Her father was a cabinetmaker and amateur fossil collector and following him on “hunting” excursions on the beach, she became his fossil-finding sidekick. Since the age of five or six, she was helping him uncover and clean fossils they found on the seashore to then sell them in his shop.
Upon the sudden death of Mary’s father in 1810, this pastime became key to keep her family afloat.
The first Ichthyosaur
In 1811, Mary was just 12 years old and after her brother Joseph first unearthed a strange looking skull, she began to dig the outline of what, after several months, turned out to be an incredible 5.2m-long fossilised skeleton.
The specimen was studied for years and was eventually named Ichthyosaurus, which translates to ‘fish lizard’ — although we now know it was a marine reptile. The ichthyosaur lived around 200 million years ago, but when Mary discovered it, Georges Cuvier, who’s considered the father of paleontology had only recently formalized the theory of extinction and Darwin’s “On the origin of species” was not even written yet. That is to say that most people believed in a literal interpretation of the “Genesis”, one where the Earth was only few thousand years old and species did not evolve or become extinct.
In 1823, Mary, now 24 years old, made another interesting, and this time quite controversial, discovery. She was the first to discover a complete skeleton of what we now call a Plesiosaurus, “near to reptile”. This skeleton was so otherworldly and bizarre that there were rumours it was a fake produced by combining fossil bones from different kinds of animals. A special meeting took place at the Geological Society of London to settle the controversy over the legitimacy of the finding and Mary was not invited — in fact, they didn’t admit women until 1904.
Mary’s reputation for finding and identifying fossils was growing, but the scientific community was still very much resistant to recognize the work of such a young and dissident woman, who was only a self-taught “paleontologist” with no formal education. Because of both her gender and her working-class social status, her contributions were neglected for the longest time. Mary needed to sell what she found to support her family, so fossils of scientific interest tended to be credited to museums in the name of the wealthy collector who bought them, rather than the poor person — in this case a woman — who found them.
It is even more sad to also realize that she was not just a fossil finder who did not understand what was in front of her eyes; she had many interactions with the scientific community, who picked her brains to discuss about anatomy and classification, but was always treated as an outsider — something she became resentful of:
“The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone”
Mary kept finding fossil after fossil and in 1828 she uncovered a most strange ensemble of bones. Unlike ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs, this creature had wings! The news of the discovery of a pterosaur, deemed the largest-ever flying animal, travelled fast as these were the first remains of a pterosaur ever discovered outside Germany. In 1829 W. Buckland described it as Pterodactylus macronyx, and, unlike many others before, credited Anning with the discovery in his paper.
Mary died from breast cancer, aged 47, in financial hardship, despite her groundbreaking (literally!) discoveries that constituted key pieces of evidence for extinction of animal species. Today, her spectacular finds are showcased at the Natural History Museum in London and are finally credited to her, attracting and enchanting visitors, much like centuries ago.
Her life has inspired the movie Ammonite, with Kate Winslet as Mary Anning, whose premiere was planned for September 2020 and has now been moved due to the pandemic.
Underway is also an important effort — and impressive because sparked by a determined teenager, Evie Swire — to erect a statue of Mary as a permanent monument in Lyme Regis. Inspired by her life and achievements, Evie started the Mary Anning Rocks campaign, now also supported by Sir David Attenborough.
“The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.” Charles Dickens
1799 — Born in Lyme Regis
1811 — The first Ichthyosaur
1823 — Discovers the Plesiosaurus
1828 — A pterosaur is found!
1847 — Dies from breast cancer
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About the author and artist
DR. ELEONORA ADAMI
Content editor and contributing artist
Women in Science, Sci-Illustrate Stories
Eleonora is a proud descendant of ancient Romans. Besides that, she is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at Duke-NUS in Singapore, working in the cardiovascular and metabolic diseases area. She has a biotechnology (BSc) and functional genomics (MSc) background, and has obtained her PhD in molecular biology and genetics in Germany before going to the far east.
Eleonora thinks of herself as a carrier pigeon, always on the go, trying to find new adventures and challenges. Ok, maybe pigeons are not very adventurous, but they were once useful to deliver important messages. One of the messages she likes to bring across is that we need more art in scientific practices. Creative thinking benefits both disciplines.
A passion for illustration has always accompanied her and percolates in her scientific work. She started the collaboration with the Sci-Illustrate team after attending their course on scientific illustration.
About this series:
Not enough can be said about the amazing Women in Science who did and continue to do their part in moving the world forward.
Every month, through the artwork & words of the Sci-Illustrate team, we will bring to you profiles of women who touched our hearts (and brains) with their scientific works, and of many more who currently hold the flag high in their own fields!
-Dr. Radhika Patnala, Series Director