Women in Science – Mary Anning

100 years ago, the Representation of the People Act 1918 allowed some women over 30 to vote in the UK. To celebrate this, Oxford University Museum of Natural History’s current exhibition, Women In Science, explores the life and work of 14 female scientists. From Marie Curie to Barbara McClintock, these women are among the most influential in their fields. Here, Madeleine O’Connor explores Mary Anning, and how she contributed to the scientific understanding reflected throughout the museum.

Palaeontology is the field of science dedicated to unravelling the mysteries of ancient life, most often through the study of fossils. It can lead to a better understanding of an organism’s anatomy, evolutionary history and relationship with the environment. In the late 1700s, the modern study of palaeontology was kickstarted by the French zoologist and naturalist Georges Cuvier. As with all other scientific fields in this era, men dominated palaeontology. Nevertheless, one of the most revered palaeontologists to this day is a woman: Mary Anning.

Born in 1799 in Lyme Regis, Dorset, Anning’s father Richard Anning was a carpenter and cabinetmaker. The family often struggled to make ends meet. Storms would cause sections of the Lyme Regis cliffs, part of what we now call the “Jurassic Coast”, to collapse, and the Anning family exploited this to earn a little extra money. Anning joined her father in collecting and selling “curies”, known to us as fossils. When she was just 11, her father unfortunately passed away but his fossil collecting legacy lived on in Mary and her only surviving sibling, Joseph Anning.

Anning joined her father in collecting and selling “curies”, known to us as fossils…

One remarkable thing that can be said for Mary Anning is that she made arguably the most important discovery of her career when she was only 13. When Joseph discovered a skull of what appeared to be a crocodile, she returned to the site in 1812 and revealed the first complete ichthyosaur skeleton ever discovered. This Temnodontosaurus platyodon specimen was first described by Sir Everard Home in 1814 but with no mention of Anning. Unfortunately, most of the skeleton has since been lost but the importance of her find is hard to overstate in the palaeobiological world. Over 90 ichthyosaur genera have been described to date and the marine reptiles are now known to have first appeared in the Early Triassic, living through the Jurassic Period and became extinct for unknown reasons in the Late Cretaceous. Full body reconstructions appear strikingly similar to modern day sharks and dolphins, clearly demonstrating convergent evolution. Information about Mary Anning for the Women in Science exhibition is very fittingly placed on the ichthyosaur display case and I would highly recommend you take the opportunity to have a look. It is located at the front right of the museum with a rather adorable Ichthyosaurus communis specimen that she uncovered at the top right of the display.

This was not her only important discovery as she uncovered many fossilised reptiles and fish, including the first pterosaur skeleton to be found outside Germany. The museum owns quite a few of her fossils such as a Squaloraja polyspondyla specimen, (an Early Jurassic chimaera, a type of cartilaginous fish), three Belemnites species (squid-like cephalopods that had hard internal skeletons), a coprolite (fossilised faeces) and a Plesiosaurus species paddle.

The Plesiosaur case at the back of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

On the topic of Plesiosaurus species, others believe her most influential discovery was in fact of a sub-complete specimen of Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus. This species is a type of plesiosaur, an extinct order of marine reptile that can only be described as having the appearance of a Loch Ness monster. The first description of the specimen was written up by William Conybeare in 1824 but, again, he did not credit Anning for the find. Initially the fossil was assumed to have been faked, especially by Georges Cuvier, due to how different it looked from any other fossil. Eventually though, it was accepted. Cuvier described plesiosaurs as having “a lizard’s head, a crocodile’s teeth, a trunk and tail like an ordinary quadruped, a chameleon’s ribs, a whale’s paddles, whilst its neck was of enormous length, like a serpent tacked on to the body”. This intriguing description should tempt you to look at the new plesiosaur display at the back right of the museum while visiting the Women In Science exhibition.

With the discovery of whole new groups of organisms, especially the shocking Plesiosaurus fossil, extinction became harder to deny. This undoubtedly contributed to Darwin’s realisation of the theory of evolution via natural selection later that century.

The importance of these discoveries gains context when we consider that these fossils were being found in the early 1800s. The concept of “extinction” was not yet accepted, despite it being mentioned by Cuvier to explain why no living mammoths had been found. With the discovery of whole new groups of organisms, especially the shocking Plesiosaurus fossil, extinction became harder to deny. This undoubtedly contributed to Darwin’s realisation of the theory of evolution via natural selection later that century.

Now we know that Anning contributed so much to geology and biology, was she duly credited? By today’s standards, certainly not. Whilst becoming renowned for her vast scientific knowledge, despite only being taught to read and write at Sunday school, she only rarely received credit in scientific papers. Her only published scientific piece was in 1839 and this was not related to her discoveries. She was unable to join the Geological Society of London because she was a woman. In her hometown of Lyme Regis, she was seen as an uneducated woman who had merely struck some undeserved luck, rather than the woman who could identify fossils like the back of her hand.

Despite being denied credit during her lifetime, Mary Anning is now celebrated as a leading figure in palaeontology.

All this clearly affected Anning as, according to her friend Anna Maria Pinney, Anning wasn’t happy with how her gender stifled her scientific career. Pinney wrote “She says the world has used her ill and she does not care for it, according to her account these men of learning have sucked her brains, and made a great deal by publishing works of which she furnished the contents, while she derived none of the advantages.”

Some scientists at the time did believe she deserved more credit than she received, such as the English paleontologist Edward Pigeon: “our scientific countrymen… owe the materials on which their labours and their fame are grounded… to the labour of Mary Anning”. In 1837, the British Association for the Advancement of Science gave Anning some form of recognition by providing her with a little income for her work. Despite this, she remained a poor woman and died in 1847 from breast cancer. Scientists of today also respect her influence and in 2010 Anning was rightfully included in the Royal Society’s “Most influential British women in science”.

“these men of learning have sucked her brains, and made a great deal by publishing works of which she furnished the contents, while she derived none of the advantages.”

Anna Maria Pinney on Mary Anning

Mary Anning now holds a place in the hearts of the scientist and layperson alike. Stories of her dedication despite the risk of fatal landslides live on. She has had groups of organisms named after her, such as the plesiosaur genus Anningasaura and the fish species Acrodus anningiae, and has been fondly referred to as the “Princess of Palaeontology” by Ludwig Leichhardt. In reality, this is not just a story about a woman in science, but a poor woman in science who single-handedly made a name for herself across Europe. For that she certainly deserves all the praise she gets.

The Women In Science exhibition will be running until January 2019 in Oxford University Museum of Natural History and features information written by staff members on Mary Anning and the 13 other female scientists who inspired them.