Monday, April 22

A Victorian palaeontologist who left her mark on history


THE English tongue twister, ‘She sells seashells by the seashore’ will be remembered by some of us. As a reminder, it reads thus:


She sells seashells by the seashore,

The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure,

So if she sells seashells on the seashore

Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.


Who was this figurative person who sold seashells? It is thought that she was none other than Mary Anning, who lived in Lyme Regis, Dorset, England from 1799 to 1847.

In 2010 she was recognised by the Royal Society as one of the top 10 British women who influenced the history of science. I have collected fossils during fieldtrips and on holidays for 55 years, and my personal greatest claim to fame is one third of a giant ammonite, which sits proudly on my fireplace. It pales into insignificance with what Anning found.


Who was Mary Anning?

Born into a humble cabinetmaker’s family in Lyme Regis, her parents were devout Congregationalists. Only Anning and her brother Joseph, among their eight other siblings, survived into adulthood, such were the common childhood deaths from smallpox and measles in those days. Seldom did children live beyond five years of age in cramped living conditions, with a lack of sanitation and fresh water supplies. Anning’s only education was derived from her regular attendance at her chapel’s Sunday school, where she learned to read and write. “Times were hard,” as the Victorian author Charles Dickens wrote. At the Sunday school she was influenced by the pastor’s writings, among which was a paper that he had published urging people to study the then new science of geology.


The real Jurassic Park

Some readers may have taken their children to the cinema to see films from the ‘Jurassic Park’ sequels. The real Jurassic area of the UK, full of fossils, lies along the East Devon and Dorset coastline, bordering the English Channel. There, Blue Lias cliffs composed of alternating bands of Jurassic limestone and shale annually reveal otherwise hidden secrets.

Photo shows the Jurassic Coast in the UK.

Originally these sedimentary rocks were laid down and deposited on a shallow seabed 195 million to 210 million years ago. Subsequently, these deposits were uplifted by tectonic movements of the Earth’s crust.

Today, as when Anning walked the seashore, these unstable cliffs frequently collapse through the undercutting of winter storm waves or during very heavy downpours of rain, creating landslides and rockslides.

It was what those ever-crumbling rocks contained that most interested Anning and her brother, following in their father’s footsteps in supplementing his meagre income by the sale of their fossil finds. In those early days, they sold to passing visitors ‘snake-stones’, ‘devil’s fingers’, and ‘verteberries’, which we respectively know today as ammonites, belemnites, and vertebrae.

Sadly, her father, who had introduced Anning’s mother, brother and herself to collecting cliff-fall fossils, died from tuberculosis when Anning was only 11. The family was destitute but were slightly boosted through the sale of the fossil specimens that her father had accrued. A year after her father’s death, her brother discovered and carefully excavated from the shales the 122cm-long skull of an ichthyosaur’s skull. Needless to say, Anning found the rest of its skeleton. Immediately the family’s findings were bandied about, which led to further purchases of their fossil collection. Such fossil-hunting in winter storm cliff collapses was a precarious business. Anning was often accompanied by her faithful dog Tray which, on one massive cliff fall, was buried beneath the rubble, never to recover.


Anning’s significant finds

In 1823, she found the first plesiosaurus and five years later a pterodactyl and so her discoveries increased. She was an avid reader, religiously pouring over scientific papers that others had written and loaned her. Astutely, Anning worked on the principle of whatever you may know, there is still more yet to know. At the age of 27, from the sales of her findings, she had accumulated enough money from fossil collectors and museums in the UK, Europe and the USA, to purchase a shop in Lyme Regis, aptly named ‘Anning Fossil Depot’. With a superb skeleton of an ichthyosaurus on display, her shop attracted some of the great geological names of her day to discuss the anatomy of fossils and classifications. A friend of hers wrote at the time that Anning had stated that “the world had used her ill for means of learning and had sucked her brain”.

The prominent Swiss- American geological professor, Louis Aggaziz, after exploring with Anning the Jurassic cliffs of Dorset, was the first academic to record her assistance and acknowledged her in his book ‘Studies of Fossil Fish’. Aggaziz later went on to explain the origin of the US/Canadian Great Lakes and the creation of the Hudson-Mohawk Gap leading to New York.

Anning was an assiduous correspondent, writing letters in response to many questions posed by distinguished geologists in Europe and the USA. However, she lived in Victorian England, at a time when women were not recognised by the Royal Society or by the Geological Society.

It was a British geologist, Henry De la Beche, who, upon recognising her profound knowledge, gave financial support to her family in times of destitution. Around 18 years after her death, the already acknowledged Charles Dickens wrote an article about Anning’s life stating in his conclusion, “The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.”

Dickens and his family had also faced destitution at times. Hence his little-known novel, ‘Hard Times,’ which sums up the state of mid-Victorian England very accurately, when penniless people were taken off the streets and placed in workhouses and when children were denied an education by working in sweatshops. Foster’s Education Act of 1872, which saw very many primary schools built, changed all of this. Coincidentally, my maternal grandmother, born in that year, became a primary school teacher 18 years later and I currently live in a converted, remote primary school built in 1872.


Death and later accolades

Anning died, at the age of 47, from breast cancer which had weakened her efforts in fossil hunting for several years. Buried in St Michael The Archangel churchyard in Lyme Regis alongside her brother Joseph, who died a few years later, there is a dedicated stained glass window in the church, paid for by some members of the Geological Society of London and the local vicar just after her death. An inscription beneath this window simply says, “In commemoration of her usefulness in furthering the science of geology and also her benevolence of heart and integrity of life.”

It was Henry De la Beche, when he became Geological Society president, who eulogised her by recognising her untiring work and knowledge to that of extinct life in our world. Fifty-seven years after Anning’s death, the Geological Society finally admitted women to its membership.

Her contribution to the advancement of palaeontology is still recognised by young and old fossil hunters, who regularly place flowers and fossils they have found that day from the Blue Lias cliffs, beside her simple tombstone. When my son was eight, we took him and a neighbour’s son on a family day trip to the East Devon Jurassic cliffs to fossil hunt. For the 90-minute car drive there they did nothing but moan about a boring expedition.

Once we let them loose on a beach, which had experienced a recent cliff collapse, they found handfuls of fossils and wanted to know how old they were. To see young lads’ eyes glint with the excitement of the discoveries they had found certainly made our day. What fossils can we find on the beaches of Sarawak and Sabah, where exactly, and in what rock formations? Possibly a family day trip in school holiday time to discover?