This pairing of women for our Raising Horizons exhibition are connected by some of the most incredible extinct creatures of the Jurassic world: pterosaurs, or “flying dragons” as they were once described.

Mary Anning and Dr Lorna Steel


Sketch of Mary Anning by Henry De la Beche. Used with permission of Roderick Gordon

Among pioneering women in science, Mary Anning has gained some measure of recognition, with increasing coverage in popular media including articles and books. Yet she is still not widely known (our Raising Horizons partner, Leonora Saunders, had not heard of her), and while her story is dramatic and engaging– beginning with a baby struck by lightning– some details are just as important to issues central to Raising Horizons today, nearly 200 years after she was alive.

We’ve written briefly about Mary before, and for once her wikipedia entry is respectably comprehensive. She was born in the year of the French Revolution, and was raised in a family of religious dissenters, who as a group were explicitly discriminated against (even if she had been educated- and male- she would still have been barred from university). Intriguingly, the Congregationalists promoted education for the poor, and Mary is known to have read an essay written by her own pastor urging the study of geology. With this background, plus a father who (despite a respectable profession as a cabinet maker) got involved in protests against food shortages, Mary may have been raised in an unusually socially-aware situation. It seems also somehow symbolic that the family home was sited in a marginal location: on a bridge so close to the sea, that it was flooded during storms.

Anning’s career as a professional palaeontologist (she both collected and studied her fossils) began as a child, helping her father as a way to earn a bit of extra money. When he died leaving them with no income, although her mother and brother had also been collecting, it was Mary who took charge and developed this into a business, in the process becoming a genuine expert. She was by necessity self-taught, and not only examined carefully the fossils she found, but also consulted the scientific literature when she could, even copying articles by hand. In addition, she undertook dissections of animals to better understand the things she was finding; for example she deduced that certain unusual stones were in fact coprolites.

In 1826, sixteen years after her father’s death, and by this time well-known within scientific circles the discoverer of extraordinary finds furnishing many collections and museums, she opened up her own shop premises: “Anning’s Fossil Depot”. Nearly 20 years later, she informed a king visiting her shop that “I am well known throughout Europe”. Yet Mary was also keenly aware that she was getting a raw deal in scientific terms, with upper class men being able to publish and take the credit for her discoveries once she had sold them. Even where she was occasionally mentioned in the literature, she was never offered the opportunity to co-author her finds, and it was only in 2015 that a significant fossil was named after her (Ichthyosaurus anningae). However Anning did form some supportive fossiling relationships, including with other women, some of whom she trained and collaborated with, like Elizabeth Philpott and Charlotte Murchison (another Raising Horizons woman).

If Anning had been born in more fortunate circumstances, she might never discovered her skills as a palaeontologist. However it is certain that she had intelligence, curiosity and drive (and perhaps a biting wit, according to contemporary Gideon Mantell). If she had lived in the later 20th century, she would not have faced the same level of exclusion from scientific circles (it was only on her death that the Geological Society moved to publically recognize her achievements).  We can perhaps imagine her finding a role in an illustrious museum which permitted her to pursue fieldwork and research, surrounded by amazing fossils she didn’t have to sell… much like her contemporary Raising Horizons counterpart.

Dr Lorna Steele

Dr Lorna Steel with a Rhamphorhynchus (pterosaur) fossil from Germany, which was purchased by the museum about ten years after Mary Anning died

Lorna Steel is Senior Curator in Earth Sciences at the Natural History Museum, London, and is responsible for various fossil collections such as crocodiles and their relatives, as well as the important pterosaur collection, including one of the “flying dragons” found by Anning.

Lorna’s background is in studying these amazing creatures. Following undergraduate and Masters degrees, her PhD examined the palaeohistology of pterosaurs– the microanatomy of the fossils. What Anning would have made of this can only be speculation, but given the detailed attention she paid to her specimens it is likely she would have jumped at the chance to examine them in this way (and the first microscopic studies of pterosaurs do date back to the mid-19th century, on British material, so this was cutting edge in her time too, even if the microscopes were a bit different!).

After her PhD, Lorna worked at the Dinosaur Isle Museum as Education Officer and Curator, before joining the Natural History Museum, London in 2006. As part of Lorna’s role, she collaborates on different research, including in 2015 a large scale digitization project called “eMesozoic”, as part of wider aims put the whole of the Natural History Museum’s British Mesozoic (Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous) fossils online. Most recently, she has been working with external researchers using the collections, in particular the fossil crocodiles and fossil birds.

Lorna is also committed to public outreach as well as academic research, and operates two of the Museum’s special collections twitter accounts. In a lovely echo back to the young fossil-hunting Mary Anning, Lorna was the curator who accepted the donation of Vectidraco daisymorrisae, a new pterosaur species discovered in 2008 by 5 year old Daisy Morris, and named after her in 2013.


Written by Becky.

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