Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

Elizabeth Philpot (1779-1857)
Little is known about Elizabeth Philpot. She came from a London family with a solicitor father and five children. After her parents died, she and two of her sisters moved to Lyme Regis, where they lived at Morley Cottage on Silver St. (now the Mariner’s Hotel). None married, and Elizabeth became very occupied with collecting fossil fish. She displayed them in cases around Morley Cottage, and visitors to Lyme with an interest in fossils came to see them. In 1834 the Swiss scientist Louis Agassiz studied her collection, and named a fish after her, Eugnathus philpotiae.

Elizabeth was often mentioned in letters Mary Anning wrote. Apparently the two went out fossil hunting together almost daily. Their friendship is surprising given the vast gulf of class that lay between them. Elizabeth was from educated, middle-class London, while Mary’s family was poor and self-taught. Elizabeth could collect fossils for enjoyment, while Mary sold them for a living.

William Buckland (1784-1856)
Buckland was an eccentric English scientist, and the first Professor of Geology at Oxford University. Renowned for his highly entertaining lectures, he had a chaotic household, with rocks and fossils everywhere, kept a jackal and a bear for pets, and ate his way through the animal kingdom, trying out hedgehog, mouse, fly, crocodile, and many others. Apparently he also ate the heart of the French King Louise XIV!

Buckland was also an ordained minister, though he never practiced. He expended much energy trying to reconcile religion with the new discoveries being made – such as Mary’s fossils.

Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas James Birch (c.1768-1829)
Birch was from the Bosvile family who owned an estate in Yorkshire. A lifelong military man, he was a member of the Life Guards, retiring in 1810. It seemed he fuelled his interest in fossils by buying them rather than hunting them. According to fossilist Etheldred Benett, in 1820 Birch tried to buy her entire collection; she thought him an “amateur” geologist.