Extinction is an old fact but a new idea. In the early 19th century its certainty was barely established. How many people, then, had the anatomical knowledge and geological expertise to identify extinct species – that is, creatures whose final form was largely unknown – and pull their fossils out of the rock whole? In England the answer is one: Mary Anning.
Born in 1799 in Lyme Regis, Anning went out fossil hunting on the cliffs every morning and after every storm. Ichthyosaur. Plesiosaur. Pterodactyl. Her successes were formidable.
It was dangerous work; her father, a carpenter who supplemented his income the same way, died following a fall. His death left the family £120 in debt; they were on parish relief for at least five years. Even after Anning’s fame had begun to spread, one collector visited the family to find them selling furniture to pay their rent.
Anning’s expertise was self-taught, and she knew her worth. “She is perfectly acquainted with the anatomy of her subjects,” one visitor noted, “and her account of her disputes with [theologian and geologist William] Buckland, whose anatomical science she holds in great contempt, was quite amusing.”
Her finds made her famous. Before, people came to Lyme Regis to see the fossil coast; now they came to see her. Visitors came from as far afield as the United States. “I am well known throughout the whole of Europe,” she coolly told the King of Saxony when he visited her shop in 1844.
The last years of her life were dogged by breast cancer. She died, aged 47, on 9 March 1847. Although her achievements were recognised in her lifetime, history’s privileging of text over object meant that her reputation became obscured. She had published nothing. But who could rival her achievements?
“The tide warns me,” she signed off a letter to a curator. “I must leave a scribilling.” We should be grateful she did.