Mary Anning (1799 –1847) was a prolific fossil collector who made important contributions to the new field of palaeontology, influencing ideas about geology and prehistoric life. She collected fossils in the cliffs near her home in Lyme Regis, Dorset, from a young age. Anning’s father was a cabinet maker and supplemented his income by selling fossils or ‘curiosities’. Her family were poor, and after her father died in 1810, they continued to sell fossils to tourists and collectors.
A blue plaque at the Lyme Regis Museum, the site of Anning’s home and her fossil shop. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Over the course of her life she discovered significant fossils, including the first complete Ichthyosaur skeleton (with her brother, when she was only twelve); the first complete Plesiosaurus in 1823; and the first Pterodactylus found outside Germany in 1828; all of which are now in the Natural History Museum, London. Her findings also provided evidence that a certain type of fossil, considered to be a bezoar stone, was in fact, fossil faeces. Moreover, Anning’s work informed George Cuvier’s theory of extinction, which had implications for religious belief and God’s perfect creation.
The Anning Pliosaur at the Natural History Museum. Source: Wikimedia Commons, John Cummings.
Although she was rarely credited with her discoveries in scientific papers, she became renowned in the scientific community despite the barriers of class, education and gender, forming friendships with eminent geologists like William Buckland, William Conybeare and Adam Sedgwick. As a woman she was unable to join scientific societies, but towards the end of her life she received an annual payment from the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Geological Society of London. Fabled to be the inspiration for the Edwardian tongue-twister “She sells seashells on the seashore”, Mary died from breast cancer, aged 47.
Portrait of Mary Anning by Benjamin John Merifield Donne, 1850. Sadly, her dog Tray died on a fossil hunt in 1833 as a result of a landslide. Source: Public Domain.
Visiting information for the Lyme Regis Museum:
Built on the site of the Anning family home and fossil shop, the museum features exhibits about Mary Anning and her life, as well as stories about the town.
Summer Opening (March-November): Monday to Saturday 10-5; Sunday 10-4.
Winter Opening (November to March): Wednesday to Sunday 10-4.
Prices: Adult £5.95; Child (6-17) £2.75; 5 and under, free.
Fossil walks can also be booked online, www.lymeregismuseum.co.uk.
Find out more:
Video from The Royal Society, ‘Most influential women in British science history: Mary Anning’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=85&v=-htKQYCrv3Q (2010)
S. Emling, The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World (Basingstoke, 2011).