It all started with a curious nine-year-old and a question she asked her mother. Where in their hometown of Lyme Regis was the statue of Mary Anning, the pioneering Victorian fossil hunter she had recently discovered, lived and worked there?
There was not one, Anya Pearson was forced to tell her indignant daughter. Anning’s lifetime of discoveries – including finding the first ichthyosaur skeleton at the age of just 12 – may have profoundly shaped the emerging science of paleontology, but in her own town of Dorset and beyond, she had been largely forgotten.
The schoolgirl, Evie Swire, is now 15, and on Saturday she and Pearson will see that the injustice is finally corrected, with the revelation of a striking new statue of Anningraised and funded thanks to a campaign they started as a direct result of Evie’s questions.
After overcoming planning and Covid delays, being forced twice to find a new site and crowdfunding more than £ 150,000 through their Mary Anning Rocks campaign, the couple describes the moment as particularly sweet.
“I knew it would happen one day, but now that it’s finally here, I’m obviously very happy and very proud of it,” Evie says. Anning, she thinks, “would be very happy that she finally got the recognition she deserves”.
Anning was born in 1799 into a family that literally got its life from the coast around the new resort of Lyme Regis, dug up fossils from the dangerously crumbling rocks and sold them to collectors and museums. In addition to the ichthyosaur, her finds include the first complete plesiosaur skeleton and the first pterosaur found in Britain.
But she was much more than a bone hunter, says the anthropologist and broadcaster Alice Roberts, who has been a supporter of the statue campaign since the beginning.
“She was not only a fossil collector, and that’s really important. She understood what she was looking for, she was dealing with the science of the time, even though it was obviously [as a working-class woman] she could not be a member of any of the learned societies of the day. ”
Although Anning certainly did not get the full credit for her expertise, Roberts notes, “it is not as if she was not known in her time. Although in the 19th century and earlier, there were absolutely fewer women than men involved in science and writing. about science, there was still plenty – and there is plenty we have forgotten. ”
That tide is starting to turn, she feels, and for Mary Anning, that is certainly the case. In the last few years, Anning has been added to the primary curriculum and has had a suite of rooms named after her at London’s Natural History Museum, where many of her finds are now housed. Ammonite, a movie about her life starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, was released in 2020.
“Kids are growing up now and know who she is; it’s just part of their educational DNA, so it’s ingenious,” Pearson says. “She is in really safe hands with the next generation.”
And it’s not just Anning. “What’s also really nice about the campaign is that it has shown us that there is a lot of love out there for historically forgotten women,” Pearson says. Others have been inspired to campaign to erect their own statues, with at least eight other projects underway under an umbrella group called VISIBLEwomenUK. “This is the end result of what happens when you put a lot of women in a room together. We get shit done!”
For Roberts, who will unveil the statue, accompanied by his own 12-year-old daughter: “It’s so important for our girls to see these people and hear these stories. It’s important for our boys to hear these stories and realize that the history of science does not is exclusively male. “