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Mary Anning: She Sells Seashells by the Seashore

1800s | October 11, 2018

Katherine Hamilton portraying Mary Anning (Natural History Museum)

The tongue-twister that none of us can say…did you know that it is more than just an impossible to pronounce sentence? The tongue-twister actually refers to a real person, a person who did much more than simply sell seashells. The ‘she’ in the tongue-twister is Mary Anning, one of the foremost fossil hunters who contributed greatly to the emerging field of paleontology. Yet Anning’s work was largely ignored by the scientific community because of her gender and her low socio-economic background. 

Who Was Mary Anning?

Born in Lyme Regis on the southern shore of England in 1799, Mary Anning grew up uneducated and impoverished. Her father, Richard Anning, helped to supplement the family’s meager income by searching the beaches and seaside cliffs of Lyme Regis for unique fossilized shells and other curiosities, which he sold to the wealthy Londoners who spent their summers in the area. It was from her father that Mary Anning inherited a keen eye for spotting fossils among the rocks. 

Mary Anning was born in a Unique Period in Time

In Anning’s time, scientific knowledge was growing by leaps and bounds. It was during this time that the umbrella term of ‘science’ split into specific disciplines, such as biology, geology and botany. Many of the new scientific discoveries put people at odds with long-held beliefs and at odds with Biblical teachings. Among these radical new ideas were theories that the Earth was much older than previously thought and creatures that once walked the Earth have since gone extinct. This created much debate in the growing scientific community. 

Anning Discovered Dinosaurs

While not yet a teenager, Anning made a discovery in the cliffs of Lyme Regis that caught the attention of the scientific community in faraway London. It was the fossilized bones of a previously unknown creature. Today, we know that what she uncovered was an ichthyosaur, a prehistoric animal that had lived and gone extinct millions of years ago. This wasn’t a one-time discovery for Anning. Over the years, she continued to pull the bones of strange, prehistoric creatures from the rocky cliffs. 

(Photo by Peter Jordan - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)

Anning Unearthed the First Plesiosaur Fossil

One of the most significant finds in the emerging field of paleontology was Anning’s discovery of a nearly complete plesiosaur fossil. At first, noted scientists, including the French anatomist, George Cuvier, denounced the find as a fake. But soon Cuvier realized the authenticity of the fossil and its scientific importance. Cuvier was one of the first whose writings questioned the Biblical account of the age of the planet. He proposed that the Earth was much, much older and that it had a pre-history.

Anning’s Work Was Discredited Because She Was a Woman…and Poor

The early 1800s may have been a time of radical change in scientific understanding, but it was still very much a man’s world. Intellectual study was thought to be too taxing on the inferior brains of females and the male patriarchal society did not give much credence to the scientific discoveries and theories presented by women. Additionally, London’s scientific community was an elite club. It was made up of wealthy men, most of whom did not need to work to support themselves and could devote their time to study and observations. There was no room in this club for someone like Mary Anning who often didn’t know where her next meal was coming from. 

Anning Did Eventually Profit From Her Discoveries

Mary Anning did sell seashells, fossils, and unique rocks to the tourists visiting her community, but she barely earned enough to keep herself from starving. Despite her poverty, she took efforts to make herself known in the scientific community by writing and sending letters to some of London’s respected scientists. One of them, a noted fossil hunter, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Birch, went to Lyme Regis to personally purchase from of Anning’s fossils. He was appalled to see the living conditions of the woman who had significantly added to the scientific understanding of prehistory. He worked to secure an annual annuity for Anning from the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Even though the organization agreed to finance her work, the vast majority of her findings were not credited to her and she was nothing more than a footnote in scientific and paleontology books. 

Charles Darwin (History.com)

Anning’s Work Inspired Charles Darwin

Anning’s discoveries of prehistoric animals that no longer exist on Earth naturally led to the concept of extinction, which was a new and unsettling idea in the early 1800s. For Christians living at that time, the Bible was taken as literal fact. Church teachings stated that the planet was created by God in seven days and that since that time, things have stayed constant. Finding evidence of long-ago animals that had gone extinct upset this notion and forced scientists, philosophers, and theologians to consider reasons why a species of God’s creatures all disappeared from the Earth. Years later, Charles Darwin outlines his theory on extinction and evolution in his groundbreaking work, On the Origin of Species.

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.