Pioneering paleontologist recognized

Published September 1, 1998

TWO HUNDRED YEARS after her birth, a seminal figure in the development of science – and an Anglican in her later years – is finally receiving her due.

Born on May 21, 1799, in Lyme Regis, England, Mary Anning made three great paleontological discoveries before turning 30. Her finds are displayed around the world, but few museums mention her. There are fictionalized children’s books about her, including Marie Day’s charming Dragon in the Rocks, but no biography has appeared.

A symposium planned for Lyme next June with John Fowles, Stephen Jay Gould and other luminaries will make amends for scholarly neglect. Still, nothing has been written yet about her religious life, even though her work unsettled the beliefs of millions.

The Annings were Congregationalists, but Mary’s father, Richard, scandalized even other Nonconformists by searching for “curiosities” on Good Friday and other holy days. Mr. Anning raised eyebrows too, by taking his children where landslides could kill without warning.

We know little about the curriculum at the Dissenters school she attended briefly, but one thing she read, the Congregationalists’ Theological Magazine and Review for 1801, provides a glimpse of the religious world of her childhood.

One essay insisted God created the universe in six literal days. Mary also read, however, a model curriculum for Nonconformist schools urging Dissenters to study geology.

As a teenager, Mary discovered ichthyosaurus (the fish-lizard), the first prehistoric marine reptile to be scientifically described, leading pioneer geologists on fossil hunts.

One was William Buckland, Oxford’s first geology professor and an Anglican clergyman. In the 1810s and 1820s, geology was considered romantic and spiritual. Pious pastors were among its first students.

In December 1823, Ms. Anning told him she had found a strange creature. Her friend, Henry De la Beche and the Anglican clergyman, William Daniel Conybeare, had suggested in 1821 that there must have been another ancient beast besides ichthyosaurus, but many scholars doubted the reptile they described could have existed. When Mr. Conybeare heard Ms. Anning had found a nearly complete plesiosaurus, he was so excited he barely finished his Sunday sermon.

Finding plesiosaurus, “a serpent pulled through a turtle,” firmly established Ms. Anning’s fossil-hunting reputation. It also confounded scientists, since it was so unlike any modern animal. This, and her discoveries of fossil fish, mollusks, and dimorphodon (the first flying reptile found outside Germany), made it increasingly difficult to believe ancient life resembled recent life.

Mary’s faith helped her take risks on crumbling cliffs. Her friend, Anna Maria Pinney, who earlier noted Ms. Anning’s piety, wrote in 1833 that after several close calls, “The word of God is becoming precious to her after her late accident, being nearly crushed to death. I found it healing her mind.”

Ms. Anning found comfort in the Bible, but her work disturbed others. Earlier, geology had seemed a safe subject for Dissenters; John Gleed, her pastor from 1818 to 1828, supplemented his salary by selling fossils. By the 1830s, many clerics feared geology.

Mr. Buckland, who later became the Dean of Westminster Abbey, said religion should embrace science, claiming ichthyosaurs revealed “the workings of one and the same eternal principle of wisdom and intelligence, presiding from first to last over the total fabric of Creation.”

Extinction, though, was deeply upsetting to those who read Genesis as requiring every species ever created to be alive still. By the early 1830s, it seemed clear reptiles once filled land, sea and sky.

As fossil discoveries undermined faith in Genesis as literal history, people across England left churches in droves.

Lyme’s Independent Chapel, once one of the most respected Dissenter congregations in Dorset, nearly disbanded during the 1830s. Ms. Anning occasionally contributed financially to the chapel, as it suffered schism and disappointing pastors, but shifted allegiance to the Anglicans.

Ms. Anning’s Fourth Notebook, probably kept during the 1840s, offers a peek into the faith which sustained her in hard times, such as Bishop Wilson’s Prayer for a Sick Person. Living alone for the first time after her mother died in 1842, Ms. Anning copied a poem by Henry Kirke White called Solitude:

“It is not grief that bids me moan,

It is that I am all alone …”

Next, however, she noted Josiah Conder’s response, that we have an Almighty Friend. On another page we find Woman!:

“And what is a woman? Was she not made of the same flesh and blood as lordly man?

Woman seems throughout the sacred Scripture … more than even man the object of this pure benevolence.

And woman (when his own disciples fled and left him) dared attend his cross; they were his constant followers …

Say then shall woman sink beneath the scorn of haughty man? No, let her claim the hand of fellowship …”

Mary Anning died in 1847. Her body was laid to rest in the graveyard of St. Michael the Archangel Church. Her brother, who became church warden in 1846, was buried beside her in 1849. Raised Congregationalists, they ended up Anglicans.
Thomas W. Goodhue is pastor of Bay Shore United Methodist Church in New York State and is author of a forthcoming biography of Mary Anning.


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