Subject: Can men find fossils?
From: Alex Kemp
Date: Friday, 29 Aug 2014 23:25:44 +0100
To: Micaela Kemp, Liisa Kemp, Davin Kemp
Mary Anning and her fossil-hunting dog, Tray

The subject line may seem silly, but I was thinking of our recent holiday & that day hunting fossils on the beach at Charmouth, and I realised that every person that we met that day that found some fossils was female (including, of course, Micaela). I thought that that was odd, but then realised that the whole reason that we were on that beach in the first place was because of Mary Anning (pictured above). That made a little more sense, so here is a bit of a bio on Mary Anning:-

Mary Anning was born in the coastal town of Lyme Regis, Dorset, England on 21 May 1799. Mary was a working-class lass with little formal education, who died at 47, and who left her birth town only once (a short trip to London & back). Her family were religious dissenters, which meant that they suffered legal discrimination, and almost destitute. Her mother gave birth to 10 children, but only Mary & her brother Joseph survived beyond childhood. Then her father died when Mary was just 11 years old, leaving her & her brother to support the family. And yet, in spite of these (and other) difficulties, today the Natural History Museum in London declares that Mary Anning is the “greatest fossil hunter ever known” and her discoveries are “some of the most significant geological finds of all time”.

Mary’s family lived in a house on the site of what is now the Lyme Regis Museum. That house was exceptionally close to the waters of the English Channel. During the Winter, storms often build up that cause the seas to batter cliffs all along that coast. One winter, a storm flooded their home to such an extent that they survived only by escaping from a 1st floor window.

Mary had some extraordinary incidents whilst very young. 5 months before she was born the Bath Chronicle reported on 27 December 1798 on the death of her mother’s eldest daughter. Her mum left the 4 year old child alone in a room. All houses were heated by open fires at that time. Somehow, the child’s clothes caught fire & she died from her injuries. That daughter was also called ‘Mary’, and in May they named their new daughter after their recently deceased child. However, fate was not yet finished with Mary...

On 19 August 1800, when Mary was just 15 months old, she was being held by a neighbour, Elizabeth Haskings, whilst she sheltered beneath a tree together with two other women. A travelling company of horsemen was putting on an equestrian show, and the 3 women were watching it. Then a bolt of lightning struck the tree; all 3 women were killed instantly. Onlookers rushed Mary home, where she was revived in a bath of hot water. Her family declared that she was sickly before the event, but afterwards seemed to blossom!

1783 marks the tipping point of an immense change in human affairs. By the time that Mary was born, 3 situations strongly influenced her later vocation:-

  1. The French Revolution, and the wars that followed, stopped the English Gentry in their tradition of the Grand Tour. Thus, the Gentry, the wealthy & the middle class began to indulge what we now call a staycation. Lyme Regis, in consequence, became a popular seaside resort.
  2. Much of the dogma from Religion, such as a literal belief in a 7-day creation, was beginning to be directly questioned. Geology was a new science and beginning to become widely popular.
  3. Lyme Regis is very close to the best sources of Jurassic fossils, freshly revealed by each winter’s storms.

Mary’s father was a cabinet maker but also collected & sold fossils. He taught his children, and they took over when he died. You may recall seeing fossils at the Natural History Museum when we went to see Lyuba (that baby mammoth). A great many of the fossils on the walls of the NHM were actually collected by Mary. Eventually, people went to Lyme Regis to ask her advice, and she was accepted as the authority on fossil anatomy & discovery. Not bad for someone with almost zero education. However, in spite of all this she could not join the Geological Society. She had, you see, a unique characteristic that made her ineligible:- she was female, and the Society was male-only. Because of that, she did not always receive full credit for her scientific contributions.

In 2010 the Royal Society placed Mary Anning amongst Britain’s top 10 Female Scientists.

Alex Kemp