What is Woman?: Jurassic Thoughts

Mary Anning (1799-1847)

Anning Photo (shore)

Walking among the fossils nestled in the sand, one becomes enthralled by the history and potential of the Jurassic Coast. Mary Anning, and her loyal four-legged companion, Tray, would have walked along this path searching for fossils.


Background and Discoveries:

Mary Anning leads with her eyes. That was clear even the first time we met, when she was but a girl. Her eyes are button brown, and bright, and she has a fossil hunter’s tendency always to be looking for something. Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

Mary Anning was a working-class woman with ambition. Relatively little is actually known of her life spent among the fossils—rumors fly abundant, some contesting and others corroborating her contributions to the scientific community. Regardless, her ambition and dedication to geology and paleontology is undeniable.

On the south coast of England, in the small coastal town of Lyme Regis, in the last year of the eighteenth century, Mary was born to Richard Anning (a cabinet maker and carpenter) and Molly Moore. Mary and her older brother, Joseph were the only surviving children of nine. Like many Lyme men at the time, Mary’s father enjoyed collecting fossils along the coast—Mary was his steadfast companion. Unfortunately, Mary’s father died when she was only ten years old, and he left the family saddled with 120 pounds of debt. After the death of the Anning patriarch, Mary and Molly formed, by many accounts, an intimate bond that would last until Mary’s mother died in 1842, just five years before Mary herself would die of breast cancer in 1847.

Anning is perhaps best known for her discovery of a beautifully preserved ichthyosaur skeleton along the coast of Lyme. Reports of the discovery vary. Mythologizing Mary’s career, some sources claim that Anning exposed the skeleton on a solo mission at the ripe young age of 12. But the Lyme Regis museum acknowledges that, while Mary was integral to the discovery, it was Mary’s brother, Joseph, who found most of the ichthyosaur remains. Regardless, this Jurassic adventure whetted her appetite, and, in the years after the discovery, Mary would continue to search the shore for fossils with her hunting eyes.


  Anning Photo (sign)

In 1821 she made another important contribution to paleontology: in the same year, she unearthed both a five-foot long ichthyosaur and a twenty-foot long ichthyosaur—clearly they were distinct species, and the scientific community took note. Two years later, in 1823, Mary disinterred the skeleton of the never before encountered plesiosaurus. It was unlike anything scientists had seen before, and this prompted the prominent French scientist, Georges Curvier, to proclaim the skeleton a forgery—the head of the 200 million year old creature was so much smaller than he had previously encountered! After Curvier finally admitted his hasty mistake, Anning went on to exhume a pterosaur in 1828. This was the first time the species was uncovered and identified outside of Germany.

Anning was born into a period in time when the Christian God reigned supreme and Charles Darwin was yet to be born. But, Anning's fossil discoveries contributed in no small way to a revolutionary and radical shift in scientific thinking, complicating the role of God in an increasingly scientific world. As scholars pieced together geologic and fossil evidence, they unearthed the hisory of the earth and the theory of evolution.


Anning Photo (journal)









Here is an extract from Anning’s Common Place book. On the right hand page she asks: “What is woman?” With thinly veiled frustration, she reflects on her identity as a woman. No doubt, her rumination was spurred by an aggravation with a male-dominated profession. 

Anning Photo (museum)









A view of the Lyme Regis museum taken from the stone path that extends out into the channel.

What is Woman?:

And what is woman? Was she not made of the same flesh and blood as Lordly Man? Yes; and was destined doubtless to become his friend his help-mate on his pilgrimage but surely not his slave, for is not reason Her’s? –Mary Anning 

Most writers start their biographical narrative with a description of Mary Anning’s miraculous survival after being struck by lighting at a very young age. This account is remarkable, but these biographers paint a fairy-tale, which neglects to bring forth Mary’s intellect. The lighting strike did not impart prophetic powers, turning her, as some would like to claim, from dull to intelligent. Rather, Anning’s career speaks to her strength, aspiration, and intelligence, even if convention of the time (and even modern accounts) claimed otherwise.

One of the biggest reasons that there is relatively little known about Mary—and much of what we know about her life is speculative—is because not many acknowledged her importance, as least in the academic arena, during her lifetime. She was a woman working in a man’s England, which undoubtedly put her in the position of “his slave” more often than not. Thus, Anning’s credited contributions to geology are conflicting.

Mary’s social status and gender barred her from many scientific circles, and as such she was often denied the formal credit she deserved. Moreover, because she did not keep extensive field notes, contemporary historians find it difficult to give due credit. Some go so far as to assert that she was the greatest fossil-hunter the world has ever known, but others paint a different, less radical, picture. Larry Davis writes that “although she did not provide paleontology with great manuscripts to which later workers could refer, she did reveal, to the learned men of the time, important fossils, which played a key role in the growth of paleontology as a scientific endeavor” (121-122).

Anning’s spelling is particular and unique—certainly a consequence of being denied formal education—but the notes that are available are impressive. She is even said to have taught herself French in order to understand the important works of Georges Curvier, the “father of paleontology.” Her dedication to self-education demonstrates ability far beyond that of merely a “handmaid of scientific men,” as one twentieth century historian claimed (as quoted on a informational panel at the Lyme Regis Museum). 

For more information about Mary Anning’s life, discoveries, and work, please visit the Lyme Regis Museum in Dorset, or visit their website at www.lymeregismuseum.co.uk. The authors of this article are very grateful to the wonderful reception we received at the museum and the detailed information provided on the Lyme Regis Museum website.

Text © Abbie Titcomb, Photographs © Megan Otto 

Works Consulted:

Chevalier, Tracy. Remarkable Creatures. London: Harper Collins, 2009. Print.

Davis, Larry E. “Mary Anning of Lyme Regis: 19th Century Pioneer in British Palaeontology.” Headwater: The Faculty Journal of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University Vol. 26 (2012): 96-126.

Lyme Regis Museum Website (www.lymeregismuseum.co.uk)

Torrens, Hugh. “Presidential Address: Mary Anning (1799-1847) of Lyme; ‘The Greatest Fossilist the World Ever Knew.’” British Society for the History of Science Vol. 28 No. 3 (1995): 257-284.



Lyme Regis