There's Something About Mary

By James Burnes

Who was Mary Anning? Was she the first paleontologist, or the first woman paleontologist? Was she a mere collector, or a skilled field worker in the earth sciences? Was she an amateur or a professional? These are the kind of knotty questions about professionalization in the sciences that have occupied the attentions of many scholars. In Anning’s case, they are also questions that have exerted a measurable influence over the way we remember her life and work, the way she is represented in both scholarly and popular writing, and the complexities of gender and science in the 19th century. 

Mary Anning was born in 1799 to a working class family in the south of England. Her father Richard was a carpenter by trade, but like many men of the time, he was also an amateur fossil collector. Fossil collecting in the Lyme Regis area was for the Annings a family affair, and as Mary and her brother Joseph grew older they both became quite accomplished in their abilities to spot and collect the fossils that eroded from the cliffs. The Annings, like many other families, were commercial collectors and were able to eke out a living from the fossil business. Anning’s first discovery was the second half of a specimen, the ichthyosaur, of which the first half had been uncovered by Joseph a year prior when she was still an adolescent. Anning remained a dedicated field woman until she died in 1847 at the age of 47. 

Mary Anning’s celebrity really began in 1823 when she discovered a fossil that looked like none that had ever been discovered before. The plesiosaur was so unique that George Cuvier, upon seeing Anning’s sketch, dismissed it as a fake. A find like this, which had no living correlation, substantiated the belief that fossils were not simply the remains of living creatures but of creatures that had lived in the distant past and were now extinct. Extinction had been proposed before, but it was not the widely held belief of the scientific establishment as most recent finds--mammoths, shells, etc. had living counterparts. Further study and more finds revealed that it was genuine, and Cuvier was forced to acknowledge the importance of Anning’s find. It was Cuvier’s endorsement, more than the merits of the find itself, that conferred scientific legitimacy on Anning’s work. 

After Anning’s mid-century death, the remaining half of the 19th century saw the slow professionalization of the sciences. Most modern accounts refer to Anning as a “fossilist” and not a scientist, as the term was not yet in use during her early life. She is often claimed as a founding practitioner of paleontology, sometimes as the first paleontologist, or as the first woman paleontologist. But during her own time, Anning was never able to ascend to the professional status of her male contemporaries for reasons that were almost exclusively related to her gender and low social class.

In 700 pages on the history of geology in Bursting the Limits of Time, Martin Rudwick devotes a mere half of a sentence to Anning’s work. He claims that no matter how important the finds were Anning was unable to interpret them scientifically. This belief that women were somehow incapable of rigorous, rational thought was common in the 19th century; thus, while women could be competent collectors or illustrators, it was understood that they lacked the essential mental faculties to be professional scientific practitioners. One only needs to look at Anning’s notes on anatomy and her anatomical illustrations, not to mention Anning’s work on the Bezoar stones, to see that Rudwick underrepresents her capacity for scientific interpretation. 

In Rudwick’s follow-up Earth’s Deep History, he chalks up her celebrity to “modern heroic myth-making.” Though Rudwick’s dismissal of Anning’s scientific abilities and contributions are woefully misrepresentative of her abilities and smacks of condescension, he may have a point with the “modern heroic myth-making.” In the case of Anning, her status as a professional and as a paleontologist to boot is something that we, in the present, have imposed on her, considering the fact that she never broke into institutionalized science and the classification of ‘paleontologist’ had not yet come to be. In addition to her scientific self, Anning’s personal life does have a literary quality to it. She was a poor child who lost her father as a girl and went on to discover some of the most world-renowned fossils in the 19th century despite the disadvantages that her class, gender, and marital status conferred upon her. Unfortunately, this near-mythical status as a woman pioneer in paleontology that we have given her has elevated her above all others while diminishing the lives and contributions of the many other women active in the field concurrent with Anning’s life and work. 

In recent years, Anning’s celebrity has been showcased with “living history” presentations at the Natural History museum in London, and digitally with a Google Doodle celebrating her 214th birthday. There are scores of books written about Anning, many of which are intended for children. Though she left very little written record of her life and work, both have been thoroughly studied and published for both scholarly and popular audiences. According to a study conducted by Cynthia Burek meant to gauge public knowledge of women in the history of science, Anning, along with Marie Curie, is one of the only women scientists that people can readily name. Anning’s discoveries and work were influential in the early days of geology, and there is no reason not to celebrate her life, struggle, and science. The pitfall is celebrating Mary Anning as the only woman of paleontology when many women were active in the field throughout the 19th century. 

In “Forgotten Women in an Extinct Saurian (man’s) World,” Dr. Susan Turner and others explore the lives of  women who “were not professional palaeontologists but instead wives, daughters and pure (and usually unpaid) amateurs” and should serve as a starting point for investigations of women in the paleontological field. The authors highlight 38 different women involved in the world of dinosaurs in some way, many of them following the same paths as Anning . The brief bios range from “Pioneers” like  Anning through to “Illustrators,” “Benefactors, ” and “Unsung Heroines” who were often the wives or daughters of male scientists. When placed in this context, Anning’s peculiar position both in Victorian society and in the emerging professional structures of science, become more clear. Though Anning was not overshadowed by a famous father or husband and though the importance of her discoveries often far outstripped those of her women contemporaries, she was still not afforded the same professional status as the male practitioners in her field. Even her most important find had to be vetted by the famous Cuvier before it was accepted by the male establishment. 

Anning worked during a time when the relationship between amateur, commercial, and professional collectors was in flux, and her ambiguous place in this shifting context is partly responsible for her enduring celebrity. Too important to be counted among the ‘mere’ wives and daughters of men of science and too low-class and female to join the ranks of the male establishment, Anning was forced into a liminal historical space that makes her easy to pick out and easy to lionize. As a result, Anning has assumed a plural role in historical memory as an avatar of women scientists, especially in the earth sciences. Anning can be made into a representative figure for any number of fields and disciplines precisely because she was unable to belong to any such neatly-defined categories in her own life. Not only do we often find women on the margins of the male scientific establishment but also on the margins of traditionally female scientific work, for never do women fit into male categories and rarely do they fit into spaces deemed appropriate (by men) for women to conduct science. Anning’s fame is perhaps the result of a strange confluence of historical circumstances, but she is also an important example of the ways in which women in the sciences do not often conform to commonly understood, gendered structures. 

Further Reading
Larry E. Davis. “Mary Anning of Lyme Regis: 19th Century Pioneer in British Paleontology,” Headwaters. 2009.

Ongoing project to highlight the lives of women in the earth sciences: trowelblazers.com 


James Burnes is trained in the fields of paleontology and archaeology and holds degrees in History (BA, MA) and History of Science (MA). He is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Oklahoma that highlights field collecting, museum history, and science and popular culture in the hope of promoting the history of paleontology beyond the Bone Wars. James can be contacted at paleoporch.com or on Twitter at @LifeThruTime.