Is this a photograph of Mary Anning?

A photograph, simply named “The Geologists, 1843, Dorset”, taken by William Henry Fox Talbot and held by the National Media Museum in Bradford may be the only one in existence to show Mary Anning. Mary Anning is most famous for her contribution to the science of Palaeontology, with Charles Dickens himself saying this of her;

“It was not a science when she began to discover, and so [she] helped to make it one”

So who was Mary Anning? Born on the on 21 May 1799 in Lyme Regis, Dorset, UK, Mary was one of only two surviving children (from 10) born to Richard Anning and his wife Mary Moore. Mary was named after an older sister who had died in a house fire, and Mary herself survived a lightning strike which killed 3 other people.

Mary Anning was a self educated, hard working, working class woman, who is described as the greatest fossil hunter of all time. She started fossil hunting with her father, who was the one to teach Mary how to look for and properly clean/prepare the fossils without damaging them. They sold their fossil finds on a stall on the sea front. The stall was a huge hit with the middle classes, and many flocked from miles around to see Mary and her “curiosity’s”. So popular was the stall, and Mary, that many believe the popular tongue twister;

“She sells sea shells on the sea shore” that was written in 1908 by Terry Sullivan to be about Mary Anning.

Her finds in the rocks of the Lyme Regis coast have been some of the most significant finds in Geological History. At a time when the biblical interpretation of creation and the flood was not challenged greatly, her discovery’s provided key evidence to new and evolving ideas about the history of the Earth. She became an expert in many areas, including that of coprolites, and her opinions and expertise were sought by many, and she gained the respect of many male contemporaries. Notably William Buckland.

Along with her brother in 1810-1811 Mary found the first complete Icthyosaur, discovering more and more species, and then in 1823 she discovered a complete skeleton of a Plesiosaur followed by a complete Pterodactyl in 1828.

At aged 47 Mary Anning died from breast cancer, but for a lady who came from such humble beginnings in a poor working class family, she gained the respect of many notable early geologists. Nine years before her death she was given an annuity, or annual payment, raised by members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Geological Society of London and she was the first honorary member of the new Dorset County Museum. The British Geological Society recorded her death in 1847, yet they didn’t admit female members until 1904 showing what a great contribution she made to the fields of geology and palaeontology.

So why is it believed that this is Mary? Henry de la Beche, who was president of the British Geological Society had asked Talbot to take geological images. Through this correspondence Beche and Talbot became friends. Beche was also a close friend of Mary Anning, so based on this it may be possible that the man in the image is Beche and the woman Anning. The date of 1843 and and the location of Dorset also make for great evidence. A further contribution to that pot are the clothes the woman is wearing. They bear a great similarity to the clothes worn by Mary Anning in a portrait of her (http://www.lymeregismuseum.co.uk/in-the-museum/mary-anning).

It could easily, of course, be another woman. There were other females working as geologists at the time; Elizabeth Philpot, Etheldred Benett, and Elizabeth Carne to name a few.

Others have speculated that the two in the image are a couple, with the husband being the geologist. However the caption does read “geologists”. There was also speculation by one person that the woman in the image may be the geologist’s mother.

Whomever the woman in the photograph is, hopefully we will see more recognition of those females working in the profession at the turn on the century, as many of them are unknown even to those working in the field today. Via Timeline Photos.

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