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Make space for Mary Anning

Lyme Regis Museum Credit Rob Coombe and Lyme Regis Museum

“How did you end up doing what you’re doing?”

It is a question that I invariably get asked almost every time I meet someone new. I am now accustomed to the reaction I get. First a look of surprise and then emboldened curiosity. I can usually sense the confusion in the air because the term earth scientist, geologist or even palaeontologist does not suggest that people who look like me exist in these spaces. People who are women but also people of colour.

I was recently a co-author on a commentary published in Nature Geoscience (Dowey et al, 2021) discussing the current racial diversity crisis in the Geosciences within Global North academic communities. Our research found that of all the Physical Science subjects, Geology, Environmental Science and Physical Geography have some of the lowest percentages of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic students in UK full time undergraduate studies. The lack of pastoral support for these isolated students, the presence of hidden barriers for engagement and a historical culture steeped in colonialism are systemic processes that have led to this crisis. These data reinforce my own lived experiences of being an Earth Scientist for over 20 years as I have travelled across the world for work. Over the last 2 decades, I have worked in spaces where I literally was the only Brown face in the room. Not only that, but the few women that were present had to fight to have their voices heard and their expertise recognised in a culture that rewarded the right (white) man for the job.

Reading that last sentence back, you could be forgiven for thinking that I was commenting on the state of society over 200 years ago when Mary Anning was alive. This was a time when women were seen as genteel, fragile beings who only held any status or value to society if they were able to make a good marriage. But the legacy that Mary Anning left behind means that I, a professionally qualified woman in the Earth Sciences, can now walk unobstructed through the doors of the Geological Society of London. I can apply for a Fellowship, be invited to present lectures, and even sit on committees. This year I was even awarded the R.H. Worth Medal by the Geological Society of London in recognition of my contribution for education and outreach in the geosciences. Along with my immense pride of being recognised, I am deeply aware that these accolades and privileges that I benefit from were all denied to this great but forgotten woman of science.

Mary Anning (born 21st May 1799) was a young girl from a working-class family living in the small coastal town of Lyme Regis in Dorset. By the late 18th century, Lyme Regis had become a popular seaside resort, appealing to wealthy and middle-class families who could enjoy a day at the seaside. To make ends meet the Anning family, alongside their carpentry business, scoured the beaches in search of fossils or curios to sell to the passing tourist trade. In 1811, when Mary was 12 her brother Joseph found a 4-foot Ichthyosaur skull and a few months later she would discover the rest of the skeleton. The creature generated huge interest at that time because learned society was beginning to debate the history of the Earth in contrast to the generally held belief in the biblical account of creation. More importantly for the Anning family, the sale of the fossil generated £23 (about £2000 in today’s money), much needed funds for a family living in dire poverty. However, after the tragic death of their father, Joseph began to spend more time as an upholsterer and so it fell to Mary to solely support their fossil trade.

Although her education was extremely limited, Mary was able to attend Sunday school where she learned how to read and write. However, her knowledge and expertise in preparing, describing, and documenting the fossil specimens was all self-taught. Her reputation grew and with it her ability to collect and prepare specimens that began to attract the attention of the great learned gentlemen of the time. In 1826, she had earned enough money to buy a home with a store front window for her shop called Anning’s Fossil Depot. The shop attracted collectors from all over Europe and America who wanted to meet this tenacious, independent, and intelligent woman who defied convention and what society expected of her.

Portrait and specimen, Credit: Anjana Khatwa and Geological Society of London

But despite her fame and her proven expertise in the emerging science of palaeontology, she would remain an outsider. Wealthy collectors and learned men bought her fossils and often passed them off as their own finds; neglecting to reference her in their papers or public lectures. As a woman and of working-class background, Mary’s contribution in their eyes was expendable and irrelevant. She became resentful and later wrote in a letter “The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone”. Her supporters such as Henry De La Beche and William Buckland would help as best as they could. In fact, it is said that Henry De La Beche painted the watercolour Duria Antiquior specifically to raise funds for Mary who, despite all her fame, still lived in poverty. Over time her name became lost in history, her own specimens went unacknowledged whilst those who sought recognition and status based on her work thrived and were widely celebrated. History has not been kind to Mary Anning as she prophetically wrote in her letter.

But now the tide has quite literally has turned, as it does each day on the beaches of Lyme Regis where Mary toiled and worked. On the 21st May in 2022, due to the efforts of a young woman called Evie Swyre and her mother Anya Pearson, there will be a permanent testament to this forgotten woman of science. A statue so powerful and inspiring that the miniature model left me breathless with anticipation as to what it might look like in full size.

This extraordinary moment was the culmination of a 3 year campaign so spirited and driven, that at times I had to wonder whether the founders and volunteers ever stopped to rest. I joined the Mary Anning Rocks team in 2017 as a voluntary technical advisor and then later as a Patron. I have marvelled at the energy, the vision and the sheer inventiveness of how Anya, Evie and the Mary Anning Rocks team have steered the campaign to engage and inspire a huge international audience to raise over £100,000 in order to erect a statue of Mary in her birthplace of Lyme Regis. For me, the creation by Denise Dutton embodies Mary’s sense of power, confidence and passion entwined with the struggles she faced. Her skirts billow behind her as she strides forward with purpose; her dog Tray looks up at her with adoration. In short, it is a triumph.

Mary Anning statue: Credit: Mary Anning Rocks

In a country where statues depict mostly men and some whose historical legacies have robbed the freedom of others, the presence of Mary’s statue is sorely needed. She represents the struggle of the underdog, the oppressed and the unrecognised. My personal journey into becoming an Earth Scientist is one that has been marked by trauma, injustice and struggle, often at the hands of others seeking to rise in power and prominence. Like Mary, I have watched judgements made against me based on my gender and additionally my race. Just like Mary, these obstacles have not derailed me but they have strengthened my drive and passion to continue doing what I believe in. This is to inspire others about the story of the Earth and to ensure that the underserved in our society have access to nature. As I gazed into the face of the miniature model of Mary Anning, I saw myself reflected and I asked “who am I?”. I am a strong, confident and resilient Earth Scientist, a woman of colour, who has every right to exist in the space that Mary Anning has made for me.

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