Today, the forgotten "Young Mozart" of
paleontology. The University of Houston's College
of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the
people whose ingenuity created them.
In 1800 a lightning bolt
struck little Mary Anning. She was 15 months old.
The three older girls taking care of her all died;
but Mary's parents managed to revive her. Of
course, as Mary Anning's fame spread, so did that
Mary's father was a cabinetmaker in Lyme Regis on
the south Coast of England. He would take her out
on the cliffs to look at the "curiosities" embedded
in the stone. Those curiosities were, in fact, a
rich lode of fossil remains.
When Mary was eleven, her father died of
tuberculosis. That would've been a tough enough
loss for Mary, but it also meant financial
hardship. Then she chanced to sell one of her
fossils. Suddenly she saw she could supplement the
Soon after, she found what looked like a four-foot
alligator skull in the cliff. She got it out with
her brother's help, but she knew there had to be
more. For months she looked for the rest of the
Finally, one night, a terrible storm placer-mined
the coastal cliffs and exposed enough of the
skeleton so that Mary, now 12, could begin
excavation. She hired local workmen and oversaw the
careful extraction of the fossil. She'd given us
the first whole ichthyosaurus skeleton.
For the next 36 years Anning unearthed the fossils
of Lyme Regis. The timing was right. Scientists
were just learning that geological history reached
back far beyond the Biblical begats. The presidents
of the Geological Society became her close friends.
One even arranged some government funding for her
She made her second major find when she was 22. It
was the first whole skeleton of a plesiosaurus,
located in the tidewater. That one took Anning
years to get out. It also secured her international
fame -- at least for a while.
At 28 she found the first pterodactyl skeleton.
Stephen Jay Gould tells how her
"keen insight and uncanny field work" were driving
19th-century biologists crazy -- how they tried
to explain all those mad beasts -- part fish, part bird, part lizard.
Mary Anning died of breast cancer in 1847, just as
Darwin was writing Origin of Species
but hesitating to publish it. After Anning's death,
19th-century scientists simply wrote her out of
their books. The naturalists who'd bought her
specimens were credited with their discovery. It
didn't occur to them to credit a woman from the
lower classes with such astonishing work.
So an uneducated little girl, with a quick mind and
an accurate eye, played a key role in setting the
course of the 19th-century geologic revolution.
Then -- we simply forgot about her.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Cole, S., The Dragon in the Cliff. New
York: Lothrop, Lee, & Shepard Books, 1991. (This
is a fictionalized book for young people solidly
based on the historical record.)
Gordon, Mrs., The Life and Correspondence of
William Buckland. London: John Murray,
Albermarle Street, 1894.
Fradin, D.B., Remarkable Children.
Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1987. (This is
another young person's book.)
See also the listing under "Anning, Mary" in the
Dictionary of National Biography and a
fleeting but important reference to Mary Anning in
Gould. S.J., Eight Little Piggies:
Reflections in Natural History. New York:
W.W. Norton & Company, 1993, p. 86 et seq.; and
in Alic, M., Hypatia's Heritage,
Boston: Beacon Press, 1986, p. 115.
After Mary Anning's death, the story was spread
that her brother and not she had found the original
ichthyosaurus skull. One momentary acknowledgment
for her work came from her longtime friend Henry de
la Beche, a president of the Geological Society. He
wrote the Society's first obituary for a
non-member. Sheila Cole quotes much of it. De la
Beche said, in part:
I cannot close this notice of our losses by
death without adverting to that of one, who though
not placed among even the easier classes of
society, but who had to earn her daily bread by her
labor, yet contributed by her talents and untiring
researches in no small degree to our knowledge of
the great Enaliosaurians, and other forms of
organic life entombed in the vicinity of Lyme
Regis. Mary Anning ...
... there are those among us in this room who
know well how to appreciate the skill she employed
(from her knowledge of the various works as they
appeared on the subject) in developing the remains
of the many fine skeletons of Ichtyosauri and
Plesiosauri, which without her care would never
have been presented to comparative anatomists in
... she bore with fortitude the progress of a
cancer on her breast, until she finally sank
beneath its ravages on the 9th of March, 1847.
These are troublesome words, for they
are spoken in obvious respect and affection. Yet, at
the same time, they begin the process of
subordination that soon hid this astonishing
observational scientist from 20th-century view.
I thank Margaret Culbertson, UH Art and
Architecture Library, for the reference work that
located most of my modern source material. I thank
Heather Moore, UH Special Collections, for her far
less successful searches among the older sources --
searches that only revealed the extent to which
Anning had been disidentified with her finds in the
near wake of her death.
Image by John Lienhard, after one
in the American Museum of Natural History
The tail of an ichthyosaurus