The Overlooked Paleontologist Who May Have Inspired 'She Sells Sea Shells'

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the summer of 1844, King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony and his royal entourage were walking down Broad Street in the coastal town of Lyme Regis when they were drawn to the window of a cottage. Treasures lay on the other side of the glass: Coiled ammonite shells—long since turned to stone—were arranged in an appealing display, and in the center sat the petrified skull of a long-snouted sea reptile with pointed teeth and impossibly huge eyes.

A sign above the door read Anning's Fossil Depot. The King and his party stepped inside.

There were Jurassic-era fossils throughout the small, unassuming shop, and yet, the single most fascinating thing in the store may well have been its proprietor, Mary Anning. She'd spent a lifetime simultaneously providing for her family and unlocking the secrets of Lyme Regis's ancient past. Born into poverty in a society famed for its class consciousness, the 45-year-old businesswoman had defied the odds to become one of the world's most important scientific figures.

Though Anning didn't receive her due credit from the male naturalists who reaped the benefits of her labors, word of the fossil-hunter's many achievements still managed to spread far and wide during her lifetime. So it was with complete honesty that this daughter of a poor carpenter casually told the King's physician, "I am well known throughout the whole of Europe." And years after her death, her legacy would live on in the English language's most famous tongue twister: She sells seashells by the seashore.

A Dirty, Dangerous Job

The seashore where Anning's shop was located was on the English Channel in southwestern England, in a town called Lyme Regis. With its towering cliffs and tannish-white beaches, Lyme Regis has long been a prime vacation destination. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, affluent Britons made it their seasonal home away from home. Meanwhile, the poorer citizens who lived in Lyme Regis year-round struggled to make ends meet.

Many supplemented their income by cashing in on the area's natural history. Around 200 million years ago, the Lyme Regis area lay at the bottom of a Jurassic sea. In Anning's time—and today—fossilized remains of marine animals from this period can be found protruding from the cliffs and scattered along the beaches that surround the coastal town. Realizing that rich tourists would pay a pretty penny to take home one of these natural curiosities, fossil hunters started selling their finds throughout Lyme Regis.

One of them was Mary's father, Richard Anning, a carpenter by trade. But even with two revenue streams, he struggled to provide for his family, and their life was marked by tragedy. Richard's wife, Molly, gave birth to their first child, Mary, in 1794, and a son, Joseph, in 1796. Mary died when she was just 4 after her dress caught on fire; Molly was pregnant with her third child at the time, and when she gave birth six months later, on May 21, 1799, she named the newborn girl Mary. A year later, the second Mary almost died as well when she, her nurse, and two female companions were struck by lightning while walking on the beach. All three women died, but Mary survived.

Of the Annings' 10 children, only Mary and Joseph reached adulthood. As they grew up, Richard taught them everything he knew about the fossil-collecting business, and he even made Mary a rock hammer so she could excavate small fossils for herself.

Fossil hunting was a perilous job, and over the years, the Annings had many close calls with rockslides and rapidly flooding shorelines. That's how Richard himself died in 1810. Out on an excursion that winter, he lost his footing and fell off a cliff. Months later, injuries sustained from the accident—coupled with a serious case of tuberculosis—claimed his life. He was 44 years old.

Following his death, Molly took charge of the family fossil shop, which basically consisted of a display table that the Annings would set up in front of their modest cottage near the River Lym. Keeping this business afloat was an economic necessity for Molly and her children—Richard had saddled them with a large debt.

"These Valuable Relics of a Former World"

Drawing of Ichthyosaurus from The American Museum Journal, circa 1900.
Drawing of Ichthyosaurus from The American Museum Journal, circa 1900.
American Museum of Natural History, Wikimedia Commons // No Restrictions

The family struggled for a year until, in 1811, Joseph—who was working as a part-time upholsterer's apprentice—discovered the 4-foot-long skull of an ancient marine reptile. Joseph and a hired team excavated the head, but Mary thought more bones might still be found. The following year, she returned to the site and proceeded to expose an entire spinal column, a set of ribs, and other bones.

Thrilled by her discovery, Mary recruited an excavation team of her own. As the creature's remains were slowly removed from the rock, the group realized that they had a genuine sea monster on their hands: When it was reunited with its skull, the specimen measured an amazing 17 feet long.

The remains belonged to a dolphin-like animal that would later be called Ichthyosaurus, which means "fish-lizard." Although the Annings did not discover the first known specimen of this genus (as some sources wrongly report), theirs was the most complete skeleton known at the time and therefore became the first to attract interest from Great Britain's scientists. The fossil was sold to Henry Hoste Henley, the Lord of Colway Manor, for £23. That's the equivalent of more than £1600 or $2000 in today's money—enough to purchase six months of food for the Anning family.

The Annings' ichthyosaur subsequently made its way to the British Museum, where, according to Hugh Torrens, a history of science professor at Keele University, "it aroused great interest as a denizen of the new world that the embryonic science of paleontology was beginning to reveal" [PDF]. When news of the sea dragon spread, the Annings—particularly Mary—became household names in Lyme Regis and beyond.

But fame has never guaranteed fortune. Even after the sale of Mary and Joseph's ichthyosaur, the family remained in dire economic straits for nearly a decade. Thankfully, an 1820 charity auction thrown in their honor by the wealthy fossil-collector Thomas Birch helped give the Annings some much-needed financial stability.

In 1824, Mary Anning met Lady Harriet Silvester, a rich London widow who was blown away by the self-taught beachcomber's paleontological expertise. "The extraordinary thing in this young woman," Silvester wrote in her diary, "is that she has made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong. She fixes the bones on a frame with cement and then makes drawings and has them engraved … It is certainly a wonderful instance of divine favour—that this poor, ignorant girl should be so blessed, for by reading and application she has arrived to that degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom."

As the 1820s unfolded, Mary took over the reins of the shop from her mother—and running the shop was just one of her obligations. She was also primarily responsible for acquiring its new fossils. Molly had never been one for collecting, and Joseph's upholstery career was taking off. Combing the beaches, Mary came across many astonishing new specimens—including a few more Ichthyosaurus skeletons. As the Bristol Mirror reported in 1823, "This persevering female has for years gone daily in search of fossil remains of importance at every tide, for many miles under the hanging cliffs at Lyme, whose fallen masses are her immediate object, as they alone contain these valuable relics of a former world." The publication also noted that it was "to her exertions we owe nearly all of the fine specimens of Ichthyosauri of the great collections."

Pride, Prejudice, and a Plesiosaurus

An 1823 letter by Mary Anning describing her discovery of what would be identified as a Plesiosaurus.

An 1823 letter by Mary Anning describing her discovery of what would be identified as a Plesiosaurus.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On December 10, 1823, Mary made the discovery of a lifetime. While scouring the beach in the shadow of Black Ven cliff, she came upon a fossilized skull that was like nothing she'd seen before. The majority of the skulls she had found belonged to ichthyosaurs; they were long and narrow, a bit like the heads of dolphins or crocodiles. This skull, on the other hand, was small, beady-eyed, and had a mouthful of strange, needle-shaped teeth.

Working with some nearby villagers, Anning unearthed the rest of the mystery creature's body, which looked even stranger than the skull did. Attached to a stout torso and broad pelvis were four flippers and a diminutive tail. But the most peculiar thing about the animal was the long neck that accounted for nearly half of the 9-foot creature's length.

Anning contacted one of the only men in Europe who might fully appreciate her find: the paleontologist Reverend William Buckland. In conversations about the newborn science of paleontology, she could hold her own with anyone, experts like Buckland included. The 24-year-old devoured every scrap of fossil-related news published in the scientific journals of her time; this autodidact even taught herself French so that she could read articles published in that language. This is how Anning knew that some paleontologists—including Buckland and Reverend William Conybeare—believed that a few fossil bones previously attributed to Ichthyosaurus really belonged to an as-yet-unidentified kind of marine reptile. Conybeare had even come up with a name for this new beast: Plesiosaurus.

In her letter to Buckland, Anning provided a detailed sketch of her newest discovery. "I may venture to assure you that it is the only [Plesiosaurus skeleton] discovered in Europe," she told the scientist. This wasn't an empty boast: Anning had indeed found the first articulated Plesiosaurus remains known to science. Prior to that, nobody had any idea about what this mysterious animal looked like. Once he finished reading Anning's description, Buckland talked Richard Grenville, the first Duke of Buckingham, into buying the skeleton.

The animal's proportions were so bizarre that some scientists cried foul. Upon seeing a copy of Anning's sketch, the legendary French anatomist Baron Georges Cuvier was worried that the fossil was a hoax. In a letter to Conybeare, Cuvier suspiciously noted that "This discovery … surpasses all those that have been made so far [in Lyme Regis] and there is nothing more monstrous that one could expect to see" [PDF]. How could an animal with such an absurdly long neck possibly exist? The Baron felt that it didn't. Intensely skeptical of the find, Cuvier accused Anning of affixing a fossil snake's head and vertebrae to the body of an Ichthyosaurus. However, when it later became clear that her specimen had in no way been tampered with, the anatomist was forced to eat his words.

Famous, but Underappreciated

At an 1824 Geological Society of London meeting, Conybeare stole the show with a well-received presentation on the nearly complete Plesiosaurus from Lyme Regis. That same year, he published a paper on the specimen featuring detailed original illustrations. Neither his presentation nor his paper mentioned Anning by name.

Conybeare was just one of many scientists who furthered their own careers by writing papers about fossils that Anning had found. They rarely gave her credit, and to make matters worse, she couldn't publish her own findings in reputable journals because their editors didn't accept submissions from women. (One man who did give her credit when it was due was—perhaps surprisingly—Cuvier. "I see, however, that a skeleton discovered by Mademoiselle Marie Anning on the coast of the county of Dorset, although only five feet long, has not been allowed to be related to this species," he wrote in 1824.)

Nonetheless, institutionalized sexism didn't prevent Mary from continuing to make major discoveries. In 1824, she unearthed the first pterosaur skeleton that had ever been found outside of Germany. Anning was also probably the first person to identify fossilized poop, or a coprolite. (Sadly, Buckland—a frequent correspondent of hers—would subsequently take credit for this scatological breakthrough.) By 1826, she had earned enough money from fossil sales to relocate her family to a cottage on upper Broad Street. The main room on the ground level became the Annings' new store, complete with an attractive storefront window. It quickly emerged as a major tourist attraction, particularly for geology buffs. It hosted such celebrity visitors as Gideon Mantell, who, in 1825, had announced the discovery of Iguanodon, the first herbivorous dinosaur known to science.

But she was deprived of the formal recognition she longed for and deserved. Allegedly, when a young admirer penned a letter to Anning, she replied, "I beg your pardon for distrusting your friendship. The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone" [PDF]. Anning would often confide in her good friend Maria Pinney, who once observed, "She says the world has used her ill and she does not care for it, according to her account these men of learning have sucked her brains, and made a great deal by publishing works of which she furnished the contents, while she derived none of the advantages."

Through it all, Anning never stopped fossil-hunting, even though it remained a perilous business. Once, in 1833, Anning was nearly killed by a sudden landslide that crushed her beloved black-and-white terrier, Tray, who liked to accompany her on the beaches."“[The] death of my old faithful dog has quite upset me," Anning told a friend. "The cliff that fell upon him and killed him in a moment before my eyes, and close to my feet … it was but a moment between me and the same fate."

By the mid-1830s, Anning's fortunes had begun to falter because of a bad investment. In 1835, Buckland, moved by her plight, talked the British Association for the Advancement of Science into granting Anning a £25 yearly annuity in honor of her outstanding contributions to paleontology. This kind gesture essentially amounted to the first significant acknowledgement by professional scientists of her achievements. Her bottom line in these lean years was bolstered by the occasional big purchase made by such fossil shop patrons.

The scientific community once again came to Anning's aid when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1846. As soon as the Geologic Society learned of her diagnosis, its members began raising money to cover her medical expenses. Anning died on March 9, 1847. Her funeral was paid for by the Geological Society, which also financed a stained-glass window dedicated to her memory that now sits at St. Michael's Parish Church in Lyme Regis.

Her amazing deeds were commemorated by Charles Dickens nearly two decades later. Though he probably never met Anning in person, the author of A Christmas Carol wrote a moving essay about her 18 years after she died. "Mary Anning, the Fossil Finder" ran in the February 1865 edition of his literary periodical All The Year Round. "Her history shows what humble people may do, if they have just purpose and courage enough, toward promoting the cause of science," Dickens wrote. "The carpenter's daughter has won a name for herself, and deserved to win it."

She Sells Seashells by the Seashore

You might not be familiar with Anning's name, but you've certainly heard of her, even if you didn't realize it. In 1908, songwriter Terry Sullivan—who penned a number of catchy ballads for British music halls—wrote a song widely believed to be about Anning's life whose lyrics have since been recited by just about every English-speaking person on Earth:

"She sells seashells on the seashore,
The shells she sells are seashells, I'm sure,
For if she sells seashells on the seashore,
Then I'm sure she sells sea shore shells."

And today, Anning—long overlooked by her contemporaries—is finally getting her due. The self-taught paleontologist is now a revered figure in paleontology circles. "More than anyone else at the time," Hugh Torrens said, "she showed what extraordinary things could turn up in the fossil record." The late evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould shared this esteem for her. In his 1992 book Finders Keepers, Gould wrote that "Mary Anning [is] probably the most important unsung (or inadequately sung) collecting force in the history of paleontology."

This story was republished in 2019.

Why Beatrix Potter Ended Up Self-Publishing The Tale of Peter Rabbit

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Tale of Peter Rabbit was Beatrix Potter’s first book—and is still her best known. But had the beloved author not had the confidence to publish the book on her own terms, we might not have ever known her name (or Peter Rabbit's) today.

The origin of Peter Rabbit dates back in 1893, when Potter wrote the beginnings of what would become her iconic children’s book in a letter she sent to Noel Moore, the ailing five-year-old son of Annie Carter Moore, Potter's friend and former governess. “I don't know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were—Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter,” the story began.

According to The Telegraph, it was Carter Moore who encouraged Potter to turn her story and its illustrations into a book. Initially, she attempted to go the traditional route and sent the book to six publishers, each of whom rejected it because Potter was insistent that the book be small enough for a child to hold while the publishers wanted something bigger (so that they could charge more money for it). It wasn't a compromise that Potter was willing to make, so she took the matter into her own hands.

On December 16, 1901, a 35-year-old Potter used her personal savings to privately print 250 copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The book turned out to be a hit—so much so that, within a year, Frederick Warne and Co. (one of the publishers that had originally rejected the book) signed on to get into the Peter Rabbit business. In October 1902, they published their own version of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, complete with Potter's illustrations, and by Christmastime it had sold 20,000 copies. It has since been translated into nearly 40 different languages and sold more than 45 million copies.

In August 1903, Frederick Warne and Co. published Potter's next book, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. A few months later, Warne published The Tailor of Gloucester, which Potter had originally self-published in 1902 for reasons similar to her decision to self-publish The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

"She was very dogmatic about what she wanted it to look like and couldn’t agree with Warne," rare book dealer Christiaan Jonkers told The Guardian about why Potter self-published The Tailor of Gloucester. "Also he wanted cuts, so she published 500 copies privately. By the end of the year Warne had given in, cementing a relationship that would save the publishing house from bankruptcy, and revolutionize the way children's books were marketed and sold."

Mental Floss is partnering with the Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds® “15 Pages A Day” reading initiative to make sure that everyone has the opportunity (and time) to take part in The Mental Floss Book Club. It’s easy! Take the pledge at howlifeunfolds.com/15pages.

15 Fascinating Facts About Beatrix Potter

Getty Images
Getty Images

Even today, more than 75 years after her death on December 22, 1943, celebrated children’s author Beatrix Potter's beautifully illustrated tales—featuring animals and landscapes inspired by her beloved home in England’s Lake District—are still hugely popular. Below are 15 fascinating facts about The Tale of Peter Rabbit author.

1. Beatrix wasn't Potter's real first name.

Potter was born in London on July 28, 1866 and was actually christened Helen after her mother, but was known by her more unusual middle name: Beatrix.

2. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was inspired by a letter.

The first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Aleph-bet books via Wikimedia // Public Domain

Potter’s most famous book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit , was inspired by an illustrated letter Potter wrote to Noel, the son of her former governess, Annie, in 1893. She later asked to borrow the letter back and copied the pictures and story, which she then adapted to create the much-loved tale.

3. Peter Rabbit and her friends were partly based on Beatrix Potter's own pets.

Peter was modeled on Potter’s own pet rabbit, Peter Piper—a cherished bunny who Potter frequently sketched and took for walks on a leash. Potter's first pet rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer, was the inspiration for Benjamin Bunny, Peter's cousin in her books. Potter loved sketching Benjamin, too. In 1890, after a publisher purchased some of her sketchers of Benjamin, she decided to reward him with some hemp seeds. "The consequence being that when I wanted to draw him next morning he was intoxicated and wholly unmanageable," she later wrote in her diary.

4. Potter’s house was essentially a menagerie.


Riversdale Estate, Flickr // Public Domain

Potter kept a whole host of pets in her schoolroom at home—rabbits, hedgehogs, frogs, and mice. She would capture wild mice and let them run loose. When she needed to recapture them she would shake a handkerchief until the wild mice would emerge to fight the imagined foe and promptly be scooped up and caged. When her brother Bertram went off to boarding school he left a pair of long-eared pet bats behind. The animals proved difficult to care for so Potter set one free, but the other, a rarer specimen, she dispatched with chloroform then set about stuffing for her collection.

5. Peter Rabbit wasn’t an immediate success.

Potter self-published the Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1901, funding the print run of 250 herself after being turned down by several commercial publishers. In 1902 the book was republished by Frederick Warne & Co after Potter agreed to redo her black-and-white illustrations in color. By the end of its first year in print, it was in so much demand it had to be reprinted six times.

6. Beatrix Potter understood the power of merchandising.

In 1903 Potter, recognizing the merchandising opportunities offered by her success, made her own Peter Rabbit doll, which she registered at the Patent Office. A Peter Rabbit board game and wallpaper were also produced in her lifetime.

7. Potter was a naturalist at a time when most women weren’t.

Potter was fascinated by nature and was constantly recording the world around her in her drawings. Potter was especially interested in fungi and became an accomplished scientific illustrator, going on to write a paper , “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae, ” proposing her own theory for how fungi spores reproduced. The paper was presented on Potter’s behalf by the Assistant Director of Kew Gardens at a meeting of the Linnean Society on April 1, 1897, which Potter was unable to attend because at that time women were not allowed at meetings of the all-male Linnean Society—even if their work was deemed good enough to be presented.

8. Potter sometimes wrote in secret code.

Between 1881 and 1897 Potter kept a journal in which she jotted down her private thoughts in a secret code . This code was so fiendishly difficult it was not cracked and translated until 1958.

9. Potter was reportedly a disappointment to her mom.


Wikimedia // Public Domain

Despite her huge success, Potter was something of a disappointment to her mother, who had wanted a daughter to accompany her on social calls and make an advantageous marriage. In 1905 Potter accepted the marriage proposal of her publisher Norman Warne. However, her parents were very against the match as they did not consider him good enough for their daughter, and refused to allow the engagement to be made public. Unfortunately, Warne died of leukemia just a few weeks after the engagement. Potter did eventually marry, at age 47, to a solicitor and kindred spirit, William Heelis.

10. Potter wrote much more than you. (Probably.)

Potter was a prolific writer , producing between two and three stories every year, ultimately writing 28 books in total, including The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin , The Tale of Mrs Tiggy Winkle , and The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher . Potter’s stories have been translated into 35 different languages and sold over 100 million copies combined.

11. Potter asked that one of her books not be published in England.

In 1926 Potter published a longer work, The Fairy Caravan . It was at first only published in America because Potter felt it was too autobiographical to be published in England during her lifetime. (She also told her English publishers that it wasn’t as good as her other work and felt it wouldn’t be well-received). Nine years after her death in 1943, the book was finally released in the UK.

12. Potter's later books had to be cobbled together from early drawings.

As her eyesight diminished it became harder and harder for Potter to produce the beautiful drawings that characterized her work. As a result many of her later books were pieced together from earlier drawings in her vast collection of sketchbooks. The Tale of Little Pig Robinson was Potter’s last picture book, published in 1930.

13. A lost work of potter's was published in 2016.

A lost Potter story , The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots , was rediscovered in 2013 and published in summer 2016. Publisher Jo Hanks found references to the story in an out-of-print biography of Potter and so went searching through the writer’s archive at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Hanks discovered a sketch of the kitty in question, plus a rough layout of the unedited manuscript. The story will be published with supplementary illustrations by Quentin Blake.

14. Potter was an accomplished sheep farmer.

Potter was an award-winning sheep farmer and in 1943 was the first woman elected President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association.

15. You can visit Hill Top, Potter's home.


Strobilomyces, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0 

When Potter died in 1943 at the age of 77, she left 14 farms and 4000 acres of land in the Lake District to Britain’s National Trust, ensuring the beloved landscape that inspired her work would be preserved. The Trust opened her house, Hill Top, which she bought in 1905, to the public in 1946.

Mental Floss is partnering with the Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds® “15 Pages A Day” reading initiative to make sure that everyone has the opportunity (and time) to take part in The Mental Floss Book Club. It’s easy! Take the pledge at howlifeunfolds.com/15pages.

This article has been updated for 2019.

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