After centuries of being relatively buried in the pantheon of history’s most important scientific figures, British paleontologist Mary Anning is finally receiving the recognition she deserves.
Kate Winslet plays Anning in the drama called Ammonite, a biopic that has nonetheless created controversy by taking a number of significant liberties with her personal life. Anning’s story is remarkable and very worth telling without any creative flourishes, with a mix of triumph, tragedy and the sexism of her era.
Anning grew up in poverty in Southwest England
Anning was born in 1799 to a family of religious dissenters in Lyme Regis, a seaside town on the southwest coast of England. She grew up digging for prehistoric fossils with her father, who sold their findings to eager locals to supplement his meager income as a carpenter. Her childhood was marked by sadness. Of her parents’ 10 children, Mary and her older brother Joseph were the only two to survive into adulthood; Mary, named after a sister who died in a fire.
The frequent storms would regularly erode the limestone and shale, which then shed the ancient impressions and remains of shells, extinct creatures and other unidentified curiosities. The tourists who accounted for much of the local economy scooped them up as souvenirs, with little understanding of the history that each revealed.
To be fair, they couldn’t have known that they were purchasing prehistoric marine creatures from 200 million years prior. The early 19th-century British fossil craze began before French scientist Georges Cuvier began to circulate extinction theory, and half a century before Charles Darwin published his seminal book On the Origin of Species, which introduced the theory of evolution to the greater consciousness.
Anning was only 11 years old when her father died of tuberculosis, leaving her to pursue their amateur paleontology alongside her older brother. It was, at that point, less of a hobby and more of an economic necessity. The young siblings hunted for fossils in the limestone and shale cliffs overlooking the ocean so that they could provide critical income for the family, which had been left with debt held by its late patriarch.
During the economic recession of the 1810s, when food was scarce and Napoleon was stoking war across Europe, the Anning family depended on public assistance to supplement their meager income. Anning had largely taught herself how to read as a child but constrained by her lack of formal education and the Victorian era’s pervasive misogyny, she continued the hard and dangerous work of searching for fossils.
There were low points — Anning went on a dry spell out in the field during 1920, sending the family’s finances spiraling. They were selling their own furniture to make end’s meet until a professional fossil collector named Thomas Birch decided to sell his collection in order to bail them out. It was a show of faith in the Anning siblings, who had already impressed so many members of the scientific establishment by finding the first Ichthyosaurus — an extinct marine reptile — to be recognized by the London Geological Society. In 1819, the fossil went on display at the British Museum in London.
Anning's discoveries became the stuff of legend — even if her name remained obscured
Just as she taught herself to read, Anning educated herself on how experts excavated and prepared fossils, read up on cutting edge scientific theories of her time and became well-known amongst other scientists. The cliffs on Lyme Regis proved to be a perfect place for her work, as they are part of what ultimately became known as England’s Jurassic Coast due to its plentiful collection of prehistoric creatures.
Anning made many significant discoveries in their limestone and shale, including the first-ever complete Plesiosaurus skeleton, which drew record crowds to the British museum. None other than Cuvier himself, who at first doubted its veracity, marveled that it was “the most amazing creature ever discovered.”
Despite the renown of her discoveries, Anning was often forced to stand in the shadows, away from the spotlight given to the fossils. As a woman, she was not readily accepted into the male-dominated scientific community, including the Geological Society of London. Additionally, because so many of her findings were ultimately sold to collectors, she wasn’t credited with so many of the fossils she discovered.
Historians dispute Anning's romantic relationship with Murchison
In Ammonite, Anning is portrayed as having a forbidden affair with a young woman named Charlotte Murchison, who is played in the movie by Oscar-nominee Saoirse Ronan. For however historically accurate the science aspects of the film might be, there is no evidence that Anning and Murchison were anything but friends.
Anning met Murchison, a geology enthusiast, in 1825. Murchison was making a visit to the Lyme Regis with her husband, Roderick Impey Murchison. They stayed friends and corresponded by mail frequently enough that Anning stayed with Murchison during her one trip to London, in 1829. They were close — Anning wrote to her after her dog died in a mudslide in 1833 — but there was nothing in their letters to suggest anything more.
“I do not believe there is any evidence to back up portraying her as a gay woman,” Barbara Anning, one of her family members, told The Telegraph in 2019. “Do the filmmakers have to resort to using unconfirmed aspects to somebody’s sexuality to make an already remarkable story sensational? This adds nothing to her story.”
The film’s director, Francis Lee, admitted as much in a response issued over Twitter. “After seeing queer history be routinely ‘straightened’ throughout culture, and given a historical figure where there is no evidence whatsoever of a heterosexual relationship, is it not permissible to view that person within another context,” he wrote.
Anning married and has no direct descendants, which for a time further obscured her legacy. Charles Dickens once wrote a glowing short biography of her, but it’s only now that her contributions to science are earning the worldwide acclaim and attention that they deserve.