Marking the Date of Mary Anning’s Death

This year, marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the great English scientist and naturalist Charles Darwin.  There are numerous events, public exhibitions and programmes dedicated to him and his work on the theory of evolution.

The work of Darwin is extremely significant in science, the theory of the origin of species by means of natural selection has been claimed to be one of the most important and far reaching scientific theories in human history.   The implications effect not only science, but religion and politics.  However, on this particular day, March 9th, our thoughts turn to another pioneer within science, a person highly respected by palaeontologists today but during her lifetime, it was a different story.

On March 9th 1847, Mary Anning died.  She was a pioneering, English fossil collector and self-taught scientist who did much to aid the development of the early science of palaeontology.  With her father and brothers, Mary collected fossils along the Dorset coast, in the Charmouth and Lyme Regis areas.  She has been credited with discovering the first nearly complete fossils of a Jurassic Ichthyosaur in England and the first Plesiosaur and flying reptile (Pterosaur) a few years later.  Most of the fossils collected by Mary were sold to private collectors or scientific institutions (some of her specimens can be seen in the Natural History museum for example).  Unfortunately, as a woman and of low social standing she was unable to gain the recognition her work deserved.  Often relying on charity and parish funds; she had an extremely difficult and arduous life.  She died on this day in 1847, aged just forty-seven.  She is buried in the churchyard at Lyme Regis overlooking the cliffs where Mary searched for fossils.

The author of “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” a book made into a film starring Meryl Streep and partly shot in Lyme Regis (the famous Cobb scene); commented on the way in which the scientific community failed to recognise the work of Mary Anning during her lifetime.  Although revered by many scientists today, it is only in the last few years that her role in the early days of palaeontology has become fully recognised.

John Fowles (author) stated:

“One of the meanest disgraces of British palaeontology is that though many scientists of the day gratefully used her finds to establish their own reputations, not one native type bears the name anningii”.

Sir Richard Owen, did little to recognise her work, whilst the Swiss-American naturalist Douglas Agassiz did honour her and we believe he did name a number of species of prehistoric fish after her, a mark of respect for a woman who did so much to help the scientific community.

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