Mary Anning had several strikes against her. She was born into relative poverty. She had minimal formal education. Worst of all, she was a female. Thankfully she was also smart, curious, and obsessed with the fossils she found in the sheer cliffs by her home in Lyme Regis, England. In spite of her “shortcomings” several Mary Anning discoveries including Ichthyosaur rocked paleontology.
Fossil hunting in the Jurassic marine fossil beds was physically demanding, tedious and often perilous. In 1833 Mary Anning’s dog was standing close to her feet when falling rocks killed him. In a letter to a friend she wrote:
“it was but a moment between me and the same fate.”
She routinely sifted through debris that had just fallen from the sheer limestone and shale cliffs near her home. Since rockslides frequently trigger more slides, Anning routinely danced on the edge of danger. The best fossils would be found in the most recent slide, so she rarely backed away. She also had to work quickly before the sea claimed the fallen fossils.
Digging for fossils had been a family affair since Mary was little. Her father was a cabinetmaker who barely eked out a living for his family. He and his wife had ten children, only two of which survived childhood. They were Mary (born May 21, 1799) and Joseph (born 1796).
The Dorset Coast had become a seaside vacation destination for the wealthy. Visitors often purchased fossils as souvenirs from the Annings. That supplemented their meager living. Mr. Manning died in 1810 when Mary was 11. He left a pregnant wife, Mary and Joseph and a large debt.
Brother and sister hunted fossils for the family’s survival, but it was also Mary’s passion. She had little formal education and no scientific education. With so much first-hand exposure to the beds by her home, she became known for her depth of knowledge of fossils. She also had an intuitive expertise of scientific practice and theory.
She even learned French to read the scientific writings of Georges Cuvier, a renowned fossil scientist and naturalist.
It was nearing the end of 1811 when Mary Anning’s older brother Joseph discovered a large skull. He assumed it was that of a crocodile. It was Mary who later dug out the skull and 60 vertebrae. As it turned out, the skeleton was that of a fishlike lizard that became known as Ichthyosaurus. Mary Anning was only 12 years old then.
Henry Henley purchased the skeleton from Mary Anning’s family for £23. It was a good sum by the standards of the day. Still, it was not enough money to cure their financial woes. The skeleton went on display at the British Museum in London. In 1814 Everard Home published a scientific paper on the skeleton. Mary received no credit or even a mention.
The trend that kept women from receiving credit in scientific fields continued well through the Victorian Era and beyond. Williamina Fleming for example moved from her position as a maid to being an astronomer with many significant discoveries. She and many of the women she worked with did not receive full credit for their finds.
Over her career Mary Anning found three Ichthyosaur skeletons. They ranged from 5 to 20 feet long. She found her first complete Plesiosaurus skeleton December 10, 1823. Georges Cuvier initially called it a fake, but later said “It is the most amazing creature ever discovered.”
Among her many other important finds were Squaloraja (a fossil fish) skeleton and several pterosaurs (flying reptiles). In 1823 she discovered the ink bag of Belemnoidea fossils that are similar to modern squid. The ink had survived fossilization and could be used in a pen. It was Mary who found samples fossilized animal feces in 1824.
Mary Anning was fascinated by the emerging science of using fossils to understand the natural history of Earth. She grew up in a time when many people believed James Ussher’s interpretation that the world was created at “the entrance of the night preceding the 23rd day of October… the year before Christ 4004” The common belief was that everything in the universe was created in seven days.
Although Anning remained a Christian throughout her life, she developed a flexible view of the history of the Earth based on empirical evidence she found in her own backyard.
She was only 23 years old when Henri de Blainville gave this exciting new field a name in 1822. He called it Paleontology. Her findings contributed to the evolution of scientific views of the history of the Earth based on prehistoric life.
Despite her significant contributions to paleontology, she lived in near poverty her entire life. As a woman, she was not allowed to join the Geological Society of London and did not receive credit for her many scientific contributions.
In 2010, the Royal Society finally included Anning in a list of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science.
#1 Mary Anning offered inspiration for Terry Sullivan’s tongue twister in 1908:
She sells seashells on the seashore
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure
So if she sells seashells on the seashore
Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.
#2 Mary Anning And Charles Darwin Contributed To The Crystal Palace Park Dinosaurs, 1854
One of the most beloved features of the Crystal Palace Park was the prehistoric swamp with 33 “life-sized” dinosaurs as they were envisioned at the time. Anning’s ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs were included. Also among them was the South American Megatherium that Charles Darwin brought back to Britain on the HMS Beagle.
As a side note, we at Nellie Bly like to think that Anning’s contemporaries (whose reputations profited from her work) raised a toast to honor her at the famed New Year’s Eve Party in the Belly of the Iguanodon in 1853.
#3 Anning’s Education Was Limited But Open Minded
She learned to read and write at a Congregationalist Sunday school that was more open minded than other churches. She owned a copy of Dissenters’ Theological Magazine and Review, in which parishioners were encouraged to study new sciences like geology.
#4 Mary Anning Died From Breast Cancer March 1847
#5 Charles Dickens Wrote An Article About Her
The article, “Mary Anning The Fossil Finder” was published 18 years after her death. You can read it at the Observation Desk.
#6 Dickens Quotes Mary Anning
Miss Anning wrote sadly enough to a young girl in London: “I beg your pardon for distrusting your friendship. The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of every one.”
#7 The Lyme Regis Museum
You can visit Mary Anning’s town and take guided Mary Anning fossil walks at the Lyme Regis Museum.
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