Kim Kean discusses the lack of recognition of female geologists through the life of ninteenth-century fossil hunter Mary Anning.
Walking into Edinburgh University it’s impossible not to admire the grand portraits and busts that adorn the halls of the geology department. The greats of geology are put on display for all to see: James Hutton, the father of modern geology, highland mappers Archibald Geikie and Roderick Murchison, and Arthur Holmes who proposed theories on the continental drift…but no women. Unfortunately as anyone in STEM can attest to, historically it’s not unusual for only the achievements of men to be remembered. Although not as celebrated as their male counterparts, there were however plenty of women that got involved with the Earth sciences and made important contributions to the field. Mary Buckland (1797-1857) for example, a highly skilled scientific illustrator and fossil preparator who was a great aid to her husband William Buckland in his studies; Etheldred Bennet (1776-1845), a stratigrapher and fossil collector who made the first stratigraphical logs of the Upper Chicksgrove Quarry near Tisburry, studying layers of rock in order to determine their composition and relationship; and Charlotte Murchison (1788-1869) who accompanied her husband Roderick Murchison on his field trips and made geological sketches and drawings for him.
Although not as celebrated as their male counterparts, there were plenty of women that got involved with the Earth sciences and made important contributions to the field.
These women were huge assets to their professions, but they were only able to pursue their scientific interests because they either married a prosperous scientist, or were born into a wealthy family. Despite their high social standing and obvious intelligence and skill, they were still disregarded by the scientific community, and their work was often accredited to the men they worked for. These women were limited by what society and the men in their lives would allow them to do; even William Buckland, who relied heavily on his wife’s assistance, did not approve of women engaging with science. Until 1919 women could not become members of the Geological Society of London, or of the Royal Society until 1945. Astonishingly, until 1975 when the Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay Acts were put into place, organisations such as the BGS (British Geological Survey) could legally force a woman to resign if she got married! Even the clothing that women had to wear in the 19th century was restrictive; today you wouldn’t be caught in the field in a dress, but that’s all that these women had to wear, and when corsets and crinoline came back into fashion in the 1850’s their mobility was hindered even further.
And if a woman still wanted to go out into the field in uncomfortable and stiff clothing, she would either have to stay locally where people knew who she was, or ensure she had a chaperone by working with male family members. Societal etiquette was so strict that when Archibald Geikie, Professor of Geology at Edinburgh University, started to run geology courses for women in the 1870s, he had his wife and another older woman attend field trips to act as chaperones to avoid any unwanted rumours from spreading. These societal rules were particularly restraining for upper class ladies, whereas working class women could quite happily walk outside without a guardian, freeing women like Mary Anning to explore their surroundings unashamed.
It may have seemed that life was against Mary: she was struck by lightning as a baby, her father died when she was only eleven, and she lived in poverty most of her life.
Today Mary Anning is the most celebrated female palaeontologist in the world, yet very few people outside of the geosciences have heard of her. She was born in Lyme Regis in 1799 to Richard and Mary Anning, a cabinet maker and amateur fossil hunter who sold his finds to supplement his income. Mary and her brother Joseph would accompany their father as he scoured the Dorset coast for new fossils, and they continued his fossil selling business after he died from tuberculosis in 1810, which became the family’s only source of income. Richard’s death left the Annings in such considerable debt that they were required to apply for relief from the Overseers of the Parish Poor. Mary therefore needed to develop a keen eye for new finds to support her family, and despite having a limited education and little money to buy reading materials, she managed to familiarise herself with the scientific terminology. She also dissected fish, cuttlefish, and sea hares to understand their anatomy and make comparisons to the fossils she found on the beach, which allowed her to identify belemnites with ink sacs just like modern squids. Much of the stock she sold most likely consisted of ammonites and belemnites which are still popular amongst tourists to Lyme Regis today.
Her most important finds however were of marine reptiles such as the ichthyosaurs Temnodontosaurus and Ichthyosaur communis, and the first ever plesiosaur! She also discovered the first British pterosaur. These scientifically important finds were sold to museums such as the Bristol Institution, and to private collectors. Her hard work and attention to detail resulted in her becoming a renowned expert on the marine fauna of the Dorset Jurassic coast, and respected scientists often consulted with her on anatomy and classifications. She is known to have had discussions with world famous geologists including William Buckland, Adam Sedgwick, Roderick Murchison, Charles Lyell, Richard Owen and Louis Agassiz.
It may have seemed that life was against Mary: she was struck by lightning as a baby, her father died when she was only eleven, and she lived in poverty most of her life. But despite her sex, her low social standing, and lack of connections, Mary became a respected expert of palaeontology. When she died in 1847 the Geological Society of London even acknowledged her passing in the Society’s Journal, the first time this was ever done for a woman.
Mary Anning’s story has inspired many, and as we try to encourage more girls to get involved with STEM subjects, it’s an important one to share. Her achievements are truly remarkable and worthy of celebrating, and yet many people have never heard of her. The Mary Anning Rocks campaign wants to fix this by building a statue of Mary in her hometown of Lyme Regis. The fundraiser was started by eleven year old Evie and her family, and has already gained the support of Sir David Attenborough, and many respected palaeontologists such as Dr. Susannah Maidment at the National History Museum. A statue would be a great way to pay homage to one of the most important historical figures in geology, and the media attention surrounding the campaign will hopefully spread Mary’s story to new people. If you would like to donate to the campaign and get a snazzy Mary Anning inspired t-shirt (the Game of Thrones one is my favourite and made an excellent Christmas present) head over to the donation page, by clicking here.
The Mary Anning Rocks campaign is particularly dear to my heart, not only because I get to study the same incredible marine reptiles as her for my Masters, but because the hard work of women like Mary paved the way for future generations of women in the geosciences, and they deserve recognition. We still have a long way to go, however: in 2016 only 10% of the most cited papers in major palaeontology journals were led by women, and palaeontological societies have far less female than male members – in 2013 only 23% of members to the Palaeontological Society were women.
Slowly but surely prehistoric attitudes towards women are changing as the dinosaurs are being replaced by more modern ideals
However, there is cause for hope: almost 50% of SVP (Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology) student members in 2016 were women, and even in the palaeontology research group here at Edinburgh we are predominantly female – although I am the only woman out of five doing a masters this year, seven out of the eight PhD students are women! It would seem that the main problem is keeping women in palaeontology as they progress through their careers, and the causes of this are likely symptomatic of our societal gender inequality. Nonetheless, the growing representation of women in the geosciences brings me hope for the future, as does the fact that I have never felt like my sex has held me back. In contrary to the plethora of horrifying stories you hear of women being sexually harassed and discriminated against in the workplace, I have been very fortunate to have found supportive mentors who do their utmost to encourage their students, and create a diverse and happy work environment. My male supervisors are all fantastic role models for the effort and kindness they show; they have never put me down, but have encouraged me and filled me with passion for the exciting research I get to do.
Slowly but surely prehistoric attitudes towards women are changing as the dinosaurs are being replaced by more modern ideals. I’d like to think that the combined efforts of movements like Women in STEM, Mary Anning Rocks and the open-minded thinking of people like my supervisors will lead us to a more tolerant and diverse future where your sex, gender, race, and sexual orientation are all secondary to your ability as a scientist. One day soon, university halls are going to be filled with the portraits of the great women that moved their fields forward just like Geikie and Holmes before them.
If you’d like to know more about Mary Anning and the Mary Anning Rocks campaign, please click here.