Bridport & West Dorset News, Views, Videos & Curiosities

Lyme Regis fossil hunter Mary Anning acclaimed as top British scientist – and secret inspiration for John Fowles

THE LYME REGIS fossil hunter Mary Anning has been named by the Royal Society as the third most influential female scientist in British history.

The move comes as yet another book is published about Anning, once an almost entirely forgotten figure.

The Canadian novelist Joan Thomas has written a novel – out next week – called Curiosity.

“The material was so rich,” Thomas is quoted as saying in The Winnipeg Free Press. “I knew hers was a story that would resonate today on many levels.”

It seems indeed that Anning’s time has come.

The Royal Society’s list of the top ten women in British history who have had the most influence on science has just been compiled to celebrate the Society’s 350th anniversary  and its commitment to the advancement of women in science.

Anning’s name is potent in this respect because, as the Society’s citation reads in part, “Anning’s gender and social class prevented her from fully participating in the scientific community of early 19th century Britain, and she did not always receive full credit for her contributions.

“Despite this she became well known in geological circles in Britain and beyond, although she struggled financially for much of her life.

The Royal Society’s judging panel consisted of Professors Lorna Casselton, Athene Donald, Uta Frith and Julia Higgins, all Fellows of the Royal Society, and Dr Patricia Fara, an eminent historian of science.

Anning’s finds included the skeleton of the first ichthyosaur to be recognised, the first two plesiosaur skeletons ever found, the first pterosaur skeleton found outside of Germany, and some important fossil fish.

Her observations – as the Royal Society notes – also played a key role in the discovery that coprolites, known as bezoar stones at the time, were fossilized faeces.

The implications of all these discoveries are among the aspects of Anning’s life that fascinated the novelist Joan Thomas. Put simply, fossils made people question the Christian story of creation. How could it be true if fossils showed there had been on life on earth before the Bible said there had been?

Thomas thinks Anning’s modern-day fame stems from the international symposium, organised by John Fowles, that was held in Lyme Regis in 1999. This was attended by such influential figures as Sir David Attenborough, who described Anning at the time as “a very remarkable woman”.

While Fowles himself, Thomas says, described Anning as the “secret inspiration for the char­acter of Sarah Woodruff in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.”

The front cover of Joan Thomas's book is from a watercolour, imagining what Dorset might once have been like, by the geologist Henry De la Beche

Thomas’s book is subtitled “A Love Story“. It imagines another Lyme Regis fossil collector Henry De la Beche as the object of Anning’s affections. De la Beche also features in The Lymiad, an anonymous poem from 1818 soon due to be published by the Trustees of Lyme Regis museum – which is sited, in a final twist, exactly where Anning used to live.