Mary Anning

(May 21, 1799 - March 9, 1847)

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Early Life

Born to Richard and Mary Anning in Lyme Regis, South England, Mary was in the prime location to lead a life of fossil collecting, with this area still being a huge source of fossils from the Jurassic period. It is rumoured that at the age of one, Mary was amongst a group of people that were struck by lightning, killing three people. It was documented that after this occurred Mary became more lively and cleverer, but as she was a baby when the incident occurred, it was doubtful her development was due to her being struck by lightning! Mary began collecting at an early age, and selling these to tourists, who flocked to the area, as the science of geology and fossils became ever more popular at the time. In 1810 however she was forced to turn her hobby into a profession when her father died. It was from her father that Mary had learnt to fossil hunt, and it was not long after his death that Anning made one of the most well known discoveries in palaeontological history.

Fossil Discoveries

At the age of 12, Mary Anning was to become one of the most famous popular palaeontologists, with her discovery of a complete Icthyosaur. This discovery, even though being accredited to Mary, was thought to have actually been discovered by her brother, Joseph, who spotted what he presumed to be a head of a crocodilian, and it ws not uintill a while later, that they were able to excavate propelly, with Mary doing much of the work. This was not the first to be discovered, with partial remains being described in 1699. It was however a very important finds, and was soon recorded in the Transactions of the Royal Society. Mary went on to find two more species of Ichtyosaur in her life.

Even with these important finds, the family was always in poverty, depending on charity, and the meagre money they made from selling fossils. It was difficult for Anning to be recognised in the scientific community, what with being a young woman with no scientific education. She managed to befriend Thomas Birch, another fossil collector, who sold many of his finds, in aid of the Anning family. This gave the family some small financial support, letting Mary carry on with her finds.

It was not until the early 1821 that Anning made her next big discovery, with the finding of the first Plesiosaurus. The drawing Anning made, shown in figure 1, was sent to the renowned George Curvier, who at first snubbed it as a fake, but eventually reversed this statement after closer examination, finally giving Anning the respect she had deserved from the scientific community.

Her discoveries did not stop st these important specimens, in 1828 Mary found the first Pterosaur to be discovered outside Germany, and the first complete remains to be discovered any where, naming it Pterodactylus macronyx, this did not stick for long and was later renamed by Richard Owen Dimorphodon macronyx.

These discoveries had finally ensured that anning would be remembered as an important contributor to palaeontology. She was awarded a annuity by the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1883 and was the made an honorary member of the Geological Society of London, due to her being female, she was not allowed to become a regular member. Anning died a few months after this in 1847 of breast cancer, with her obituary being published in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, a society that still banned women members until 1904. She had become so well renowned that Charles Dickens journal ‘All the year round’ reported her as “the carpenter's daughter has won a name for herself, and deserved to win it."


Further reading:

Dr. Torrens' "Presidential Address: Mary Anning (1799-1847) of Lyme; 'the greatest fossilist the world ever knew'" British Journal of the History of Science, 1995, vol. 28, pp. 257-284.
Anon. 1828. "Another discovery by Mary Anning of Lyme. An unrivalled specimen of Dapedium politum an antediluvian fish." Salisbury and Winchester Journal, 108:5599 2
The Dragon Seekers by Christopher McGowan
"Mary Anning: The Fossilist as Exegete" by Thomas W. Goodhue in Endeavour Magazine, March 2005 issue



Mary Anning

anning fossil
Figure 1. Drawing of the Plesiosaur that Mary Anning uncovered in 1821.