MARY ANNING was an English fossil collector, dealer, and palaeontologist, born on this date (d: 1847) who became known around the world for finds she made in Jurassic marine fossil beds in the cliffs along the English Channel at Lyme Regis in the county of Dorset in Southwest England. Anning’s findings contributed to changes in scientific thinking about prehistoric life and the history of the Earth.

Anning searched for fossils in the area’s Blue Lias and Charmouth Mudstone cliffs, particularly during the winter months when landslides exposed new fossils that had to be collected quickly before they were lost to the sea. Her discoveries included the first correctly identified ichthyosaur skeleton; the first two nearly complete plesiosaur skeletons; the first pterosaur skeleton located outside Germany; and fish fossils. Her observations played a key role in the discovery that coprolites, known as bezoar stones at the time, were fossilized feces, and she also discovered that belemnite fossils contained fossilized ink sacs like those of modern cephalopods.

As a Dissenter (Protestant Christians who separated from the Church of England) and a woman, Anning was not able to fully participate in the scientific community of 19th-century Britain, who were mostly Anglican gentlemen, and she struggled financially for much of her life. As a woman, she was not eligible to join the Geological Society of London and she did not always receive full credit for her scientific contributions. However her friend, geologist Henry De la Beche, painted Duria Antiquior, the first widely circulated pictorial representation of a scene from prehistoric life derived from fossil reconstructions, based it largely on fossils Anning had found, and sold prints of it for her benefit. Anning became well known in geological circles in Britain, Europe, and America, and was consulted on issues of anatomy as well as about collecting fossils, but the only scientific writing of hers published in her lifetime appeared in the Magazine of Natural History in 1839, an extract from a letter that Anning had written to the magazine’s editor questioning one of its claims.

After her death in 1847, Anning’s unusual life story attracted increasing interest. Charles Dickens wrote an article about Anning’s life in February 1865 in his literary magazine All the Year Round. In 2010, the Royal Society included Anning in a list of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science. It has been claimed that Anning’s story was the inspiration for the tongue-twister “She sells seashells on the seashore”.

The film Ammonite is, as they say, loosely based on her life, specualating that she was a lesbian.  Her family was thrilled that a film was to be made, bringing more attention to their ancestor, but were dismayed that she was portrayed as a woman who loved women. And while there’s no evidence that the real Mary Anning was gay, there was, similarly, no evidence that she was straight, either. Her family acceded to the film being made. A richly erotic, film, starring Kate Winslet as Anning and Saoirse Ronan as her lover, Charlotte Murchison. Her relationships with women were incredibly intense, per her letters, so it’s not much of a stretch to make the dramatic choice that the director Francis Lee did. As he said on Twitter, “After seeing queer history be routinely ‘straightened’ throughout culture, and given a historical figure where there is no evidence whatsoever of a heterosexual relationship, is it not permissible to view that person within another context?”

We say yes. The film is brilliant and very sexy. Cannot recommend it highly enough.