No stone unturned

In the early 19th century, science was no place for a woman. But Mary Anning was undaunted. And, at last, the 'greatest fossilist the world ever knew' is being recognised
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In its earliest days (the latter half of the 18th century), the British Museum featured - at the turn of the stairs in Montague House - the wonderful botanical and zoological drawings that Maria Sibylla Merian had risked her life to complete in Surinam. In the same era, Caroline Herschel, that great discoverer of comets, was granted an official salary of £50 a year by George III and later made an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society. However reluctantly, male-dominated science accepted that these women had made a contribution.

In its earliest days (the latter half of the 18th century), the British Museum featured - at the turn of the stairs in Montague House - the wonderful botanical and zoological drawings that Maria Sibylla Merian had risked her life to complete in Surinam. In the same era, Caroline Herschel, that great discoverer of comets, was granted an official salary of £50 a year by George III and later made an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society. However reluctantly, male-dominated science accepted that these women had made a contribution.

Yet, from Victorian times onwards, as science became more professional and bureaucratic, their work came to be dismissed as that of mere "handmaidens", deserving at most a patronising footnote. Slowly, however, their contributions are being rediscovered. Patricia Fara, author of Pandora's Breeches: Women, Science & Power in the Enlightenment, says that their importance has been acknowledged in academia for several decades; now there is a push to get it more generally recognised. "There used to be a desire to rediscover lost women of the past and make them into heroines," she says. "Now there's more of a recognition that women and men were doing different things, generally, but very important things."

Yet some women do deserve to be held up as heroines. One such - Mary Anning, a central figure in the "heroic age of geology" - has just received public recognition as her home town, the Dorset seaside resort of Lyme Regis, dedicated a whole day to celebrating her life. Had its prominent early 19th-century visitors, which included Jane Austen, Harriette Wilson and William Wilberforce, been told that in 2004 the town crier would be bellowing the virtues of this working-class woman to an audience of dignitaries and visitors, before the mayor unveiled a plaque marking her birthplace, they would have been astonished.

Yet Anning - who discovered the first British pterodactyl, the first complete plesiosaur and the first ichthyosaur to come to scientific attention - has now rightly been recognised as "the greatest fossilist the world ever knew," according to Hugh Torrens, Emeritus Professor of History of Science and Technology at Keele University, who is working on a biography. Another of her ichthyosaur skulls is displayed in the new Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum, near one of Merian's books of paintings, while the Natural History Museum, which holds as a treasure the skull of that first monster of the Jurassic seas, also acknowledges her contribution.

Anning found that ichthyosaur, with her brother, at the age of just 12, in 1811, providing a valuable supplement to the income of her widowed mother, who was then dependent on poor relief. They were living then in a tiny house above what would be Mary's first fossil shop, now the site of the town's museum. However, Torrens says that stories which have been written about Anning portraying her as some sort of child prodigy are wildly innacurate.

"Her real achievement was as an adult," he says. "She took on the prominent men in her subject and showed them she knew more than they. In 1823, when she found the first complete plesiosaur, Georges Cuvier in Paris didn't quite believe it - it seemed such an impossible animal. When she proved it was true, her reputation went up, and stayed up."

This reflects the importance of Anning's ability not just to find the specimens, but to extract previously unknown creatures from their imprisoning matrix, deducing their likely anatomy from her knowledge of similar specimens. Henry de la Beche, president of the Geological Society, wrote of "the skill she employed in developing the remains of the many fine skeletons of ichthyosauri and plesiosauri, which without her care would never have been presented to the comparative anatomists in the uninjured form."

A letter that Anning wrote to William Buckland (the first professor of geology at Oxford) describes how she dissected sea hares because she thought that there might be similarities between them and the fossil belemnites that can still be picked up in great quantities from among the flints of Lyme Bay. She was thus able to predict that the Jurassic sea creatures had ink sacs, and later found fossil examples: a perfect QED.

She did this work at the house of Elizabeth Philpott, who, despite coming from an upper-class family, was also a close friend. Philpott's fine collection was to be a major contributor to the collection of the Oxford University Museum. The Swiss geologist Louis Agassiz wrote of a visit to Lyme Regis in 1834. He was very excited to see in Philpott's collection 34 new species of fossil fishes that the women had identified, and even more thrilled that: "Miss Philpott and Mary Anning have been able to show me with utter certainty which are the ichthyodorulites [dorsal fins of sharks] that correspond to different types." Anning had earlier (in December 1829) made her fourth major discovery, of the fossil fish Squaloraja, which was seen as the transition between sharks and rays.

Anning and Philpott also probably worked together on the puzzle of the fossils now known to be coprolites (fossilised faeces). Buckland had called them "Bezoar stones", since he thought they resembled "the concretions in the gall-bladder" of the goat of that name, once used in medicine. Anning was able to show that these were being found within the abdomens of the animals, and establish their nature. Buckland then published the conclusion, which produced the memorable Oxford ditty of the 1830s: "Approach, approach, ingenuous youth/And learn this fundamental truth:/ The noble science of Geology/Is bottomed firmly in Coprology."

Anning thought about how her discoveries fitted within the great patterns of the natural world. She wrote in 1844: "I think the connection or analogy between the Creatures of the former and present World excepting as to size, much greater than is generally supposed." She also clearly embraced the concept of extinction, then a subject of great debate. Commenting on ammonites, she noted that while the fossil record held more than 200 species, only a single related one was now known.

While she spent much of her time in her workshop and shop, preparing fossils, Anning's work was grounded in hard slog over and around the dangerous cliffs of Lyme Bay. Richard Owen, later head of natural history at the British Museum, wrote of an expedition led by Anning, which also included Buckland and William Conybeare (a prominent writer on geology). The party were "like to have been swamped by the tide and had to scramble over the cliffs". Standing now on that same stormy shore, picking through pools of treacherous quicksand-like mud, as huge balls of clay bounce down the cliffs high above, it is not hard to see the hazardous nature of Anning's occupation.

Then there were no tide tables, no lifeboats to call out with a mobile phone, and the miners of the blue lias, the fossil-bearing limestone, who often exposed new fossils, were also reshaping the coast and its currents on every tide. As Thomas Hawkins wrote, "[Anning] rescued from the gaping ocean, at peril of her life, the few specimens which support all the fact and ingenious theories." Hawkins's admiration was doomed to be an unreciprocated one, however, and Anning wrote of him that: "He is such an enthusiast that he makes things as he imagine they ought to be, and not as they are really found." Such a pithy turn of phrase drew Jo Draper, the current curator at the Lyme Regis Museum, to Anning and her "Mary Anning's Town - Lyme Regis," idea was launched on Mary Anning Day. "Mary seems to communicate more directly than you expect from someone in the early 19th century," says Draper. "She comes across as a clear, strong character."

Anning certainly enjoyed the controversies and debates in which she was unable to participate in print. She wrote in 1828 to Lady Murchison: "I do so enjoy an opposition among the big-wigs." Her bluntness, however, did not always go down well. When the King of Saxony visited in 1844, his doctor wrote unflatteringly afterwards that Anning had written her name in his notebook, and added: "I am well known throughout the whole of Europe."

But Anning was not above feelings of bitterness. Philpot wrote that Anning complained "these men of learning have sucked her brains, and made a great deal by publishing works of which she furnished the contents, while she derived none of the advantages." Anning's commonplace book was, says Draper, "stuffed with quotations about the position of women". In her lifetime only two of the species she had identified were named after her, both by Agassiz.

Lyme's Mayor, Barbara Austin, says, "[Anning] has always been an important part of our history." Draper says Anning "was commercially successful, and the town respected that" and by the time of her death from breast cancer at the age of 48, the scientific world, at least, had recognised her importance. (It had even convinced the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, to make a special £300 payment in recognition of her work.) In the church of St Andrew's in Lyme Regis, the Geological Society paid for a memorial window, and in 1900 she was one of the tiny number of women acknowledged in the first Dictionary of National Biography, if only in the "Supplement" of "accidental omissions or people overlooked" in the main edition.

Yet she soon became a colourful footnote. There was a revival of interest in the 1930s, although patronising at best. One historian wrote: "She was not a scientist at all, only the handmaid of scientific men." Draper says a geologist had complained to her that a fuss was only made because Anning was female. After all, she had not published. "The fact that no working-class male geologist was able to publish anything until much later in the 19th century seemed to evade him," she says.

There is no doubt, however, about her standing among her successors today. "All the fossil collectors in Lyme think she's god!" says Draper. Fara shares their view of Anning's importance, regarding her as a good example of the under-recognised contribution of women to science.

"She took advantage of the opportunities open to her, and became very good at what she did," says Fara. "She is a very appealing character, but just because she has been heavily romanticised doesn't mean she didn't have a great impact on the progress of science."

THE HANDMAIDENS' TALES

* The British Museum's new Enlightenment gallery makes a special effort to recognise the efforts of women. As well as an Anning ichthyosaurus, it features the scientific paintings of Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717).

* Women honoured by commemorative plaques in Ireland for their contribution to science include Agnes Clerke (1842-1907), an astronomer from Skibbereen in Cork. Another is Maude Delap (1866-1953) who worked from home in Kerry, raising jelly-fish with homemade apparatus and who did much to determine which jellyfish goes with which hydra (anemone).

* Annie Jump Cannon (1863-1941) was an astronomer who discovered more than 300 new stars. She developed the mnemonic "Oh, Be A Fine Girl - Kiss Me!", a phrase that has helped generations of astronomers to remember stellar spectral classification.

* The Rosalind Franklin medal, posthumously recognising the contribution of the crystallographer to the discovery of DNA, was launched in 2002. It is awarded annually by the Royal Society.

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