S01E39 Mary Anning

Ep 39: Mary Anning (Sells Seashells By the Seashore)

Mary Anning had the deck stacked against her from the beginning – not only was her family poor and part of a religious minority, she was a woman in Regency England interested in science (gasp!). Yet she was defining the fields of  biology, zoology, and paleontology when Darwin was still in diapers. Blocked from joining the gentlemen scientists of established societies, she sold seashells by the seashore — using business and branding to control the fossil market and make them her devoted customers.   We’ll explore how her story connects with tongue twisters, dinosaur pool, the effects of the Napoleonic Wars on tourism, and Harry Potter plot twists (yes, really!).

Links & Additional Resources

This brief biography from the University of California Museum of Paleontology includes the quote we read from Lady Harriet Sivester:

. . . 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.


In 2010, the Royal Society compiled a list of the ten most influential British women in the history of science and Mary Anning made the cut! You can read the entire list, as well as brief biographical sketches of the women, here.


To celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, the Geological Society of London posted “The road to Fellowship – a history of women and the Geological Society” on their blog. While Mary Anning isn’t mentioned (what’s up with that, GSL??), it provides great insight into the barriers to women participating in scientific fields and receiving recognition for their work.


Find the lyrics to this delightfully catchy song here. Emily’s favorite verse is the second:

By circa 1820,
She ran a fossil store.
She put the bones together
For the col-lect-ors.
And science was the province
Of men of noble birth.
But I’d take Mary Anning
Over those stuffed white shirts!

This band, artichoke, has an entire album of songs about scientists. AN.ENTIRE.ALBUM. You can buy it on their website here. Take my money — right??


Portrait of Mary Anning by B.J Donne – notice her dog Trey in the bottom right (Credit)


This is an example of a fossilized ammonite like those Mary would have found in Lyme Regis by the hundreds. (Photo credit)


Fossilized skeleton of a rhomaleosaurus, a type of plesiosaurus discovered and identified by Mary Anning (Photo credit)


Duria Antiquior by Henry De la Beche. This watercolor was the first to represent what a prehistoric scene might have looked like based on fossil evidence. De la Beche used Mary Anning’s discoveries in Lyme Regis to inform his painting. This painting is also the first known example of the aquarium view showing the action both above and below the water. (Public domain)


Google got in on the Mary Anning action with this Doodle celebrating her 215th birthday on May 21, 2014. (Credit)


Just before publishing this podcast, we discovered a fun poem about Mary Anning written by Jamaican poet John Kenyon (1784-1856), a distant cousin and good friend of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. (Mostly, I’m impressed with all the rhymes he came up with for “Anning”!) An excerpt is below:

Though keenest winds were whistling round,
Though hottest suns thy cheek were tanning,
Nor suns, nor winds could check or bound
The duteous toils of Mary Anning.
At first these relic-shrouding rocks
Were but thy simple stock in trade,
Wherewith, through pain, and worldly shocks,
A widowed mother’s lot to aid.

But now, with taught and teaching eye,
Thy practised sense their sense is scanning;
And learning and philosophy
Both own their debt to Mary Anning.
E’en poets shall by Thee set store;
For wonders feed the poet’s wish;
And is their mermaid wondrous more
Than thy half-lizard and half-fish?

Read the whole piece here.


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