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She unearthed fantastic prehistoric creatures that had been lost to the sands of time, and her achievements – overlooked and uncredited while she was alive – also almost remained buried.
An unsung pioneer of paleontology, Mary Anning is finally getting some of the recognition she deserves thanks to the tireless work of academics and campaigners.
A new movie starring Kate Winslet called “Ammonite,” which will be released on streaming services in the United Kingdom March 26 and is already available in the US, shines a fresh light on her life.
Anning made several pivotal fossil discoveries in the early 1800s on the beaches of Dorset in southwest England – now known as the Jurassic Coast – despite living in dire poverty and lacking a formal education. She forged an unusual path in the face of the deeply ingrained sexism and rigid social structures of the Victorian era.
“Mary Anning is recognized by many as the first female vertebrate paleontologist and an extraordinary fossil collector,” said Annalisa Berta, an American paleontologist and the co-author of the book “Rebels, Scholars, Explorers: Women in Vertebrate Paleontology.”
Anning’s most notable finds included the 3-meter-long (9.8-feet-long) Plesiosaurus, which she unearthed around 1823, according to The Natural History Museum in London. The incredible fossil, the first of the species to be found intact with its snakelike neck, wowed the world, setting in motion a dinomania that gripped Victorian England and continues to this day.
The discovery also sparked controversy, challenging the prevailing religious beliefs of the time and those who opposed the ideas of extinction and evolution. Some thought the fossil was a fake.
“Like most women of her time, she was not university educated and so turned over her fossil discoveries to her male colleagues to describe. She was, however, rarely given credit for her discoveries,” said Berta.
The movie stars Winslet as Anning, who sells her fossils – including the the distinctive whorls of the ammonite shells the movie is named for – to tourists and to eminent geologists who described them in scientific papers without crediting her. She encounters and falls in love with Charlotte Murchison, a customer’s wife who – as portrayed by Saoirse Ronan – develops her own interest in ancient bones.
The real Mary Anning
“Ammonite” accurately depicts many details of Anning’s life, particularly her hardscrabble beginnings. Eight of her nine siblings died before making it to adulthood, and the movie often shows Anning’s mother caring for eight animal figurines she calls “her babies.” As a child, she helped her father collect fossils he sold in his seafront shop, but when Anning was 11, he died of tuberculosis. She continued to hunt fossils, selling them to tourists and collectors to help her mother make ends meet.
“The way that she excavates the fossils and looks for them (in the movie) is super accurate, said Caitlin Syme, a paleontologist who works at the Office of the Queensland Chief Scientist in Australia, who wrote about the movie for The Conversation.
“It was really because of her work that other geologists and paleontologists around her began to piece together what came before,” Syme said. “And this was before evolutionary theory had been proposed.”
Anning taught herself so well she received visits from European royalty and the big-name geologists and paleontologists of the day. But she was never allowed to become a member of Geological Society of London, the main forum in that day for fossil collectors and those who studied them.
Berta, who is a professor emerita at San Diego State University, said she wishes the the movie had dug deeper into Anning’s work.
“I was disappointed that the movie focused on the physical relationship between Mary and Charlotte Murchison,” she said. “There is no evidence of the two women having had an intimate relationship, although they were friends.”
She felt the relationship took the focus off Anning’s accomplishments.
“The movie could have delved into the social and cultural environment of the time and the fact that Mary was self taught and initially had difficulty finding scientists who were willing to give her credit and help her learn more about the fossil vertebrates that she had discovered,” Berta said.
“Her legacy is one of being recognized today as a female role model for young girls interested in fossils.”
“Ammonite” director and screenwriter Francis Lee has defended the decision to depict Anning in a same-sex relationship. Anning’s real-life sexual preferences are unknown. She died in 1847 at age 47 from breast cancer. She never married.
“I wanted to give her a relationship but I wanted to give her a relationship that felt worthy of her, that felt equal, and that elevated her,” Lee told Deadline magazine. “In this society where men overlooked her and reappropriated her work, I didn’t feel that that could be with a man.” He declined to speak to CNN.
Syme said the depiction of Murchison as a depressed young bride to be entrusted into Anning’s care didn’t ring true, although she doesn’t think the relationship between the two women was implausible.
Murchison was 11 years older than Anning and a serious fossil collector, attending geological lectures and working alongside her husband in the field.
“It is unfortunate that, in telling this story of one female scientist, the film diminishes the complexity and success of another. I wish Ronan’s Murchison had been given the chance to be depicted as the passionate geologist she truly was,” said Syme in the Conversation article.
An overdue legacy
Anning’s accomplishments were overlooked during her lifetime – and she felt slighted as a result, according to Berta’s book.
Her name wasn’t mentioned in scientific papers that were written by male geologists about two of her biggest finds: the 1823 Plesiosaur skeleton and an ichthyosaur – a marine reptile initially spotted by her younger brother that she carefully excavated in 1811, at the age of 12. In the film’s final scene, she’s shown looking at her fossil in what’s now the British Museum, where it’s attributed to Lord Henry Hoste Henley – the man who bought the fossilized creature from her.
Her observations were also pivotal in the identification of what’s now a gold mine of information for paleontologists: fossilized poop, officially known as coprolites. Anning spotted the stonelike objects in the stomach cavities of the reptiles she discovered, and it’s something the film gives a nod to. In one scene, she goes through her customer’s finds and pauses on a coprolite. However, her role in their discovery was only given a passing mention in the scientific papers of the day.
“The world has used me so unkindly I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone,” Anning confided in a letter quoted by Berta.
Her friend Anna Maria Pinney wrote in her diary, “These men of learning have sucked her brains, and made a great deal by publishing works of which she furnished the contents, whilst she derived none of the advantages.”
While Anning’s work has subsequently received some of the scholarly recognition it merits, it’s only in recent years that she has been seen as a public figure and role model deserving of wider acclaim.
A crowdfunding effort to get a statue of Anning in her hometown of Lyme Regis reached its initial 100,000-pound (138,920-dollar) target in February. The campaign – started by 11-year-old fossil finder Evie Swire, who lives on the Jurassic Coast – aims to erect a bronze statue by next year that depicts Anning fossil hunting with her faithful dog, Tray.
Add to the queue: More women overlooked by history
Starring Rosamund Pike, the movie “Radioactive” spotlights the achievements of Marie Curie, who discovered radioactivity. The movie depicts how she struggled with the male-dominated scientific community and strove for justice and recognition.
Read: “Remarkable Creatures” by Tracy Chevalier
This historical novel from the author of “Girl With a Pearl Earring” imagines the story of Mary Anning and another female fossil hunter named Elizabeth Philpot.
Read: “Hidden Figures”
The 2016 book by Margot Lee Shetterly on the untold story of the Black women working for NASA who helped win the space race was made into a heartwarming movie that was nominated for three Oscars.
Listen: “In our time”
This episode of the BBC radio show and podcast hosted by Melvyn Bragg discusses the life of Rosalind Franklin, who made a crucial contribution to the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA but was largely robbed in her lifetime of recognition for that achievement.
Read: “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot
Cells taken in 1951 from Lacks by a surgeon without her knowledge became the first human cell line to reproduce outside the body. The cells lived on and became an invaluable tool for researchers around the world – contributing to the development of the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization and gene mapping. In her book, Rebecca Skloot introduces the real woman, her family and details how the interaction of race, poverty and science came together to revolutionize medicine.