Mary Anning

Palaeontologist

A colour portrait of a woman wearing a green dress in a 19th-century style, a straw bonnet with a red ribbon, a straw basket and a pickaxe. She is standing at the seashore and her left arm is pointing downwards at a large rock and a black-and-white dog asleep next to it. The sky is grey and stormy, with sunny skies visible in the distance.

Portrait of 1847 by B J Donne at the Geological Society (Image from wikimedia commons)

  • BORN 21st May 1799, Lyme Regis, Dorset, UK
  • DIED 9th March 1847, Lyme Regis, Dorset, UK
  • WORKED Lyme Regis, Dorset, UK
  • HONOURS Although her discoveries were crucially important for Victorian palaeontology, she received no honours and was marginalised both as a woman and as a Nonconformist.  The importance of her work was only fully appreciated after her death, and she is now widely celebrated as a female pioneer of science. A  plaque is displayed next to one of her discoveries in the Natural History Museum.
  • MINERVA SCIENTIFICA PROJECT Mary Anning/ Judith Bingham

Artistic Connections

There are no known direct connections with the arts; however, Anning’s drawings of her fossils are not just scientifically accurate but demonstrate a high level of artistic talent.

Music


Title: Mary Anning
Composer: Judith Bingham
Words by: Mary Anning, Molly Anning, Anna Maria Pinney, Thomas Hawkins, Isaac Watts, H.F. Lyte, Charles Wesley, Alfred Lord Tennyson, David Hume, Gideon Mantell, Henry Kirke White, Thomas Love Beddoes, E.B. Pusey, Wisdom. Collated and added to by Judith Bingham.
Additional Music: Hymn tune: St. Bride, by Samuel Howard.
Written in: 2010
For: solo voice, gravel and rocks
Performed by: Frances M Lynch
First Performance: St. Magnus Festival 2012 by Alison Wells

The video is from the launch of the Minerva Scientifica project in 2013 at Plymouth University and includes extracts of a piece about Miriam Rothschild in addition to Mary Anning. We were joined by palaeontologist Kevin Page from Plymouth University, who gave a talk before the performance and kindly provided the historical images.  A complete video/recording will be available in 2021.

Mary Anning is a study of this famous Victorian paleontologist which posed particular problems to electric voice theatre singer and director Frances M Lynch. She recorded the video diary below during the rehearsal process for this piece, which looks at the problem of how to walk on a beach while on stage and make the correct kind of noise! For some time she went to numerous builders yards and walked about on samples of different stones until finding the best ones. The costume and final set were created by electric voice theatre designers Miranda Melville and Elizabeth Dawson.

SOUND FILE COMING SOON!

Title: She Sells Sea Shells
Composer: Frances M Lynch
Words by: Terry Sullivan – 1908
Written in: 2015
For: acapella voices
Performed by: electric voice theatre
First Performance: electric voice theatre at Kings College London, Strand Music Room, 22nd October 2015

A setting of this well known tongue twister which is said to be about Mary Anning  – a simple mesmerising round for any combination of voices.

Frances M Lynch as Mary Anning, on the beach at Lyme Regis (photo by Helen Vincent)


Frances M Lynch as Mary Anning, smashing rocks on the beach at Lyme Regis (photo by Helen Vincent)

Education

Very basic education, but she was literate and later became very well-informed about palaeontology.

Showcase at Natural History Museum of Rhomaleosaurus cramptoni (Creative Commons License)

Occupations

Fossil collector
She supported her family by selling fossils she discovered on the cliffs at Lyme Regis, and was only a child when she and her brother found the complete skeleton of a creature that in 1817 was named an ichthyosaur. This specimen established her reputation as a major collector.

Palaeontologist
She studied palaeontology so that she could recognise which fossils would be the most valuable. Her particularly important finds included plesiosaurs and a pterodactyl.

Scientific Achievement

Mary Anning was important because she discovered exceptionally fine specimens of previously unknown creatures that led to major theoretical advances in Victorian knowledge of prehistoric life. Nowadays she is also highly regarded for her ability as a provincial woman to negotiate with metropolitan gentlemanly collectors.

Animals and plants of Dorset in the Liassic period. Lithograph by G. Scharf after H.T. de la Bèche.
By: Henry Thomas De la Bècheafter: George. (Credit: Wellcome Library, Creative Commons License)

Did You Know?

When she was a baby, she was with three women standing under a tree that was struck by lightning. They all died, but her apparently miraculous survival marked her out as someone special

Geologist Henry de la Beche painted an imaginary scene of prehistoric life in Dorset based on her fossil specimens, and sold prints to benefit her financially.

She wrote in a letter: ‘The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone.’

She may be the inspiration for the 1908 tongue-twister ‘She sells sea-shells on the sea-shore’.

An Inspiring Woman

Mary Anning has become internationally renowned for the quality, quantity and variety of fossils that she found. After her death, Charles Dickens was one of the earliest to write about her inspirational life, and since then she has been held up as a role model that children can realistically strive to emulate.
One of those children is Evie Swire, who, as they left Lyme Regis beach after some regular fossil hunting, turned to her mum, Anya, and demanded to know why Anning didn’t have a statue. Her indignant question sparked their Mary Anning Rocks campaign which from nothing has successfully raised over £100,000, created a global profile and commissioned a beautiful tribute by sculptor Denise Dutton that will be unveiled on May 21st 2022. You can still donate here for their educational program – a long-term learning legacy specifically designed to benefit underserved children in our communities, making sure Mary’s discoveries and her voice is never ignored.

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