Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Women of Wednesday - She Sells Seashells

Most of us have heard this tongue twister before.

She sells seashells on 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.

It was written (they say) about an obscure, nineteenth-century woman from Lyme Regis on the southern English shore, a woman born at the very bottom of the socio-economic ladder and into a family of religious dissenters, a woman with no more than a Sunday school education, who grew up to correspond and meet with professors, scientists, scholars and the nobility. But it wasn‘t seashells she was selling on the seashore. It was dinosaur bones.

Mary Anning was born on May 21, 1799, the fourth child in a family of ten. Two of her older siblings were already dead by the time she was born. The six who came after her would all die, too. Only she and her brother Joseph would survive to adulthood.

Mary had a hard life growing up. Her father - a cabinetmaker who should have been able to make a decent living - was a ‘dissenter,’ a man who refused to become part of the Church of England which, at that time, was the only recognized church in the country. The Annings were Congregationalists, which meant they were not allowed into university, the army, and many other professions, so they lived in poverty in a small cottage on the seashore.

Their poverty was made even worse by the Napoleonic wars raging on the continent. Bread was hard to find, and when it could be found, it wasn’t affordable. In order to supplement his income, Mary’s father went out to the cliffs and searched for fossils, but they weren’t called fossils then. There were known as ‘curiosities.‘ Mr. Anning dug them out, cleaned them up, and sold them to upper and middle-class tourists who, because of the wars, now took their vacations on the English seaside rather than in France. They bought these curiosities and brought them home to display on their mantels and show off to company.

Mary, and her older brother, Joseph, often went with their father on his fossil hunting expeditions. He showed them where to find fossils and bones and how to dig them up. But while her father and brother saw fossil hunting only as a way to put food on the table, Mary developed a genuine interest in it.

When she was eleven, her father died. He had been suffering from tuberculosis and injuries he had sustained after falling off a cliff. The Anning's financial situation went from bad to worse and they were forced onto parish relief. Fossil hunting began in earnest, and even Mrs. Anning got involved. Mary and Joseph scoured the cliffs and seaside for fossils and bones while Mrs. Anning sold their finds at a coach stop outside a local inn.

Mary made her first major find when she was only twelve years old. Her brother had discovered the four foot long head of an ichthyosaurus and told her where to find to the rest of it. The ‘rest of it’ turned out to be a 17 foot long skeleton. It took Mary almost a year to dig it out. Her mother sold it for 23 pounds.

It was about that time that scientists were beginning to question the time line of the Bible, to speak about an ‘age of reptiles,’ and of the world being more than 6,000 years old. Mary’s ichthyosaur, which had made its way to London, lent credence to these new theories. Now, it was not only tourists who came to the Annings for fossils. Scientists, professors and museum curators began to show up, too.

The Anning's little business grew, and so did Mary’s expertise. She began to draw meticulously accurate pictures of the bones and fossils she found. She made notes on where she had found them, and on the type of rock she had found them in. She became a self-taught geologist and paleontologist before there even was a science called paleontology.

“The extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she has made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong. She fixes the bones on a frame with cement and then makes drawings and has them engraved... It is certainly a wonderful instance of divine favour—that this poor, ignorant girl should be so blessed, for by reading and application she has arrived to that degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom.” - Lady Harriet Silvester describing Mary in her diary

They all acknowledged it, but none of them ever gave her credit for it. It was Mary who went out and found the fossils, who climbed the cliffs in her long skirts and bonnets, her dog Tray by her side (who died in a rockslide Mary survived.). The ‘clever men’ purchased what she had, they talked with her about what she knew and what she had learned, they examined her drawings, then they returned to London and wrote papers and gave lectures using her information and knowledge, and presented her fossils, without ever mentioning her name.

It was Mary (with her brother Joseph) who gave London it’s first look at an ichthyosaurus fossil.

It was Mary who discovered the world’s first plesiosaur.

It was Mary who discovered that the strange and mysterious bezoar was merely dinosaur dung.

And it was Mary who proved, with her discoveries, that there truly had been an age of reptiles.

And yet she received no credit for any of it in her lifetime. The strange thing was, the men she was dealing with respected her, as well as her knowledge and expertise. They did not go to Mary with the intent of taking advantage of her. They conversed with her as an equal, and many recognized she was even more knowledgeable than they were. When she developed breast cancer, they raised money to help her pay her expenses. One man, who had paid Mary very little for her fossils, auctioned them all off and gave Mary the proceeds. So it seems they not only respected Mary, they liked and cared about her, too. But they never thought to present a fossil or paper with her as a co-contributor. Was it because she was a woman? Was it her socio-economic status? Did it simply just never enter their minds? Maybe it was just too embarrassing to admit an uneducated woman knew more than they did.

Despite her finds and expertise, Mary never found her way out of poverty. When she died of breast cancer at 47, she was still unknown outside the small circle of men she dealt with. She died in the same poverty she had been born into. It wasn’t until years after her death when the science of paleontology was well established, that the men in the field began to acknowledge her contributions.

Mary was buried at St. Michaels church in the parish where she lived. The Geological Society put up money to have a stained glass window erected in the church in her honor. The inscription beneath it reads --

"This window is sacred to the memory of Mary Anning of this parish, who died 9 March AD 1847 and is erected by the vicar and some members of the Geological Society of London in commemoration of her usefulness in furthering the science of geology, and also of her benevolence of heart and integrity of life."

It’s a nice sentiment, but even there, they couldn’t admit publicly that she was anything more than ‘useful.’


Diane Mayr said...

I'd like to recommend the book by Tracy Chevalier, Remarkable Creatures: A Novel. It's the story of a "gentlewoman" who is forced by circumstances to move to the seashore. There she develops an interest in fossils, and, in Mary Anning. Well-written, interesting, and perfect for a book discussion group, too!

Mur said...

I had never heard of the relationship between the tongue twister and Mary Anning. Excellent post, Barb!