Searching for the missing women of geology, Suzanne Pilaar Birch asks if this could be the only existing photograph of renowned palaeontologist and geologist Mary Anning
Born in 1799, Mary Anning was the discoverer of the famous ichthyosaur and plesiosaur fossils on the Jurassic coast of Dorset. Following her death in 1847, Charles Dickens wrote of her contribution to geology: “It was not a science when she began to discover, and so [she] helped to make it one.” The Natural History Museum in London has called her the “greatest fossil hunter ever known“.
Simply titled The Geologists, the image above is known as a calotype or salt print. It is one of the earliest examples of photography, captured by the pioneer who developed the method, William Henry Fox Talbot, on the Dorset coast in 1843. Could it show Anning? The dress of the woman looks strikingly similar to that in Anning’s portrait.
We know that Henry de la Beche, president of the British Geological Survey and a close friend of Anning, had corresponded with Talbot in February of that year, requesting him to take geological photographs. Talbot was initially reticent, but in March 1843 agreed to meet with de la Beche. We know from letters and other sources they became friends. Could the woman be Anning and the man de la Beche?
The date, location, clothing, and correspondence make tantalising evidence. However, though Anning is relatively well-known in the history of British paleontology and geology, she was by no means the only woman working in the field. In fact, her female contemporaries included her friend and mentor, Elizabeth Philpot; Etheldred Benett, who wrote a monograph on Wiltshire geology; Mary Fairfax Somerville, a mathematician and physical geographer; Elizabeth Carne, who wrote a number of papers and was inducted into the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall in 1865; and Barbara, the Marchioness of Hastings, who specialised in fossil turtles and crocodiles.
Two women whose contributions are often muddied by their working relationships with their geologist husbands include Charlotte Murchison, another fossil hunter and talented geological sketch artist who travelled with Charles Lyell and communicated with Anning, and Mary Buckland, also an accomplished artist, who assisted her husband in writing and illustrated many fossils. Lady Eliza Gordon-Cumming, who collected and wrote about fossil fish in her native northern Scotland, corresponded with the Murchisons and Bucklands about her finds.
Unfortunately, the names of these women are not as widely recognised as Anning’s, and the thought of a female geologist at the turn of the last century still seems surprising to many. Other mentions of the photo above make the assumption that the subjects are a couple, framing the husband as geologist, despite the plural description of “Geologists”. One blog post even suggested that the accompanying woman was probably the geologist’s mother and so cropped her out of the photo.
We may never be able to know whether or not the print is really of Anning, or another contemporary active female geologist. Natural history became popular after the publication of Lyell’s Principles of Geology 10 years earlier and it is plausible that it could be a couple strolling and observing, or that the photographer used models. However, the previous interpretations of this image can be construed as symptomatic of the airbrushing of women scientists out of history.
As Rebekah Higgitt has pointed out, there is the risk of “rescuing” historical figures from obscurity by overstating their accomplishments. But in many cases the accomplishments of women scientists have simply gone unrecognised.
Even if we cannot identify the subjects in the photo, we can use the case as a starting point for a discussion of the role of women in the history of science. Often overlooked, women’s contributions were not just in the form of isolated discovery, but also in the cultivation of and participation in rich scientific networks of men and women. If Mary Anning had been the only woman to wander the coast with geological intent, there would be no mystery.
Suzanne Pilaar Birch has a PhD in Archaeology and is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in Archaeology at Brown University, US. For those interested in reading more she recommends these pages at The British Geological Survey, Trowelblazers, and Breaking Ground, which seek to change the way we think about the study of the past through geology, paleontology and archaeology and emphasise the key roles women have played throughout the history of these disciplines.
• This article was amended on 6 December 2013. The original caption gave Dorset as the location. This has been corrected.