“Why no statue?” (7)

This is another candidate in my series, “Why no statue?”

This time, we move to the deep south of England, to the area of Lyme Regis and Charmouth, to be precise. Keep your eyes open for the orange arrow..

Mary Anning (1799-1847) was alive at a time when the entire country believed that the Earth was not very old at all and that it was impossible for species to change or to evolve or even to become extinct.

Mary was born into the family of a cabinetmaker, who died when she was eleven. They supplemented their income by selling fossils from the cliffs on the coast to tourists, from a table outside their home. The latter was so close to the sea that storms often flooded the ground floor and the family had to climb out of a first floor window to escape a watery grave. Here is a typical storm at Charmouth :

Of ten children, only Mary and Joseph survived their childhood. Wars had tripled the price of wheat, but wages had remained the same. The child mortality rate was 50% and smallpox and measles were mean spirited killers. On August 19th 1800, baby Mary was nearly killed but not by disease. She was being held in the arms of a neighbour, Elizabeth Haskings, who was talking to two friends under an elm tree. The tree was struck by lightning and only Mary survived. She was rushed home and revived in a bath of warm water. Wikipedia said that:

“afterwards she seemed to blossom. For years afterward members of her community would attribute the child’s curiosity, intelligence and lively personality to the incident.”

How very Baron Frankenstein!

In 1833, a landslide killed her dog, Tray, a black-and-white terrier, at her feet as she hunted fossils under the cliffs. She wrote to her friend:

“Perhaps you will laugh when I say that the death of my old faithful dog has quite upset me, the cliff that fell upon him and killed him in a moment before my eyes, and close to my feet … it was but a moment between me and the same fate”.

Here’s Mary and Tray, on a happier day:

Mary learnt to read and write at a Congregationalist Sunday school. Her favourite possession was a bound collection of the Dissenters’ Theological Magazine and Review containing two essays by the family’s pastor, James Wheaton. One said “God created the world in six days”, the other was entitled “Don’t forget to read about the new science of Geology”.

Mary looked for fossils in the coastal cliffs around Lyme Regis, especially the mudstone cliffs at Charmouth:

Mary was the first person to identify an ichthyosaur skeleton. She was only eleven years old:

On December 10th 1823, she found the first complete plesiosaurus:

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In 1828, she found the first British pterosaur, followed by a Squaloraja fish skeleton in 1829. A Squaloraja fish is one from the shark or ray family. This is a pterosaur:

In December 1830 she sold a new species of plesiosaur for £200, an enormous sum in those days, around £25,000 in today’s money. Lady Harriet Silvester had written of Mary, four years earlier:

“It is certainly a wonderful instance of divine favour – that this poor, ignorant girl should be so blessed, for by reading and application she has arrived to that degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom.”

Indeed, on one occasion, the doctor and aide of King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony asked her to write her name down for him.

She spelt it as “Mary Annins”— and told him “I am well known throughout the whole of Europe.”

Which she was.

In the early 1820s, the eminent French anatomist Georges Cuvier accused her of forging fossil animals by adding extra ones more or less at random. After a meeting of the Geological Society, Mary was completely exonerated and Cuvier forced to say that he had acted in haste and was wrong.

Impoverished Peasants   1      Famous French Barons     0

Here’s a caricature of Cuvier. In actual fact, Mary Anning was not the only person to get the better of him, despite his having a brain the size of a brontosaurus.

Part 2 to follow…….



Filed under France, History, Humour, Science, Wildlife and Nature

16 responses to ““Why no statue?” (7)

  1. She was certainly spared for a purpose. Fascinating history, John

  2. Thank you John. I will wait for the next part. I wish I had this story when I was teaching in a narrow minded school that had a science textbook that would have declared all she said was lies. But that is a story for another time.

    • I think we would all love to hear that one. It was in the early part of the 19th century, of course, that the literal interpretation of the Old Testament took a right pounding, with all these strange animals set in stone (to coin a phrase).

  3. GP

    There should be a statue for Mary. All too often we forget those that went before us and laid the groundwork for us to build on.

    • There certainly should be. Over here in England, the fact that she was a woman was doubly significant because schools struggle to attract girls to take up science subjects. Perhaps things would change if we gave the Mary Annings of this world a little more publicity.

  4. A great piece of alternative history.

    • Thank you. It’s such a great pity that such people as Mary Anning, and the woman who made possible the discovery of the structure of DNA and the woman who pioneered computer languages written in English, rather than in mathematical notation (COBOL) should have received very little recognition at all.

  5. An amazing young woman! Incredible the way she narrowly escaped death on several occasions. Look forward to reading Part Two.

    • She certainly was! Next time we look at the prejudices she faced, and how the dice were heavily loaded in favour of rich white men who were upper class and members of the Church of England. (Not a lot changed there, then!)

  6. Awesome post! I had no idea. Someone ought to erect a statue of Mary Anning post haste!

    • You are absolutely right. Mary stood for all the ordinary women of her era who were treated really as inferiors, compliant beings with little brain power who could cook and look after children. As we shall see next time, Mary faced a number of prejudices in the nineteenth century and not a great deal has changed since then.

  7. How lucky was she to have survived two near misses! She is now part of the national curriculum and rightly so!

  8. That is great news! Next time we shall see what the exact prejudices were that she faced, with a quick look at ten scientists who achieved great things and who are nowadays unknown. I wonder why? Was it because they were women?

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