She was one of the most successful fossil hunters in history and a central figure in the history of paleontology, her discoveries are displayed in major museums, she was a self-taught woman in a field dominated by men from Oxford and Cambridge, and she was even the subject of the childhood tongue-twister “She sells seashells by the seashore”–yet Mary Anning is today largely unknown and virtually forgotten.
A Plesiosaur skeleton collected by Mary Anning, on display in the British Museum of Natural History.
Mary Anning was born into a desperately poor working class family in May 1799, in the tiny village of Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast in England. She and her brother Joseph were the only two of ten children to survive childhood, and she herself was named after a sister who had died in an accidental fire at age four. As a young child Mary was almost killed as well–she survived a lightning strike that killed three other people with her.
Mary’s father, Richard Anning, was a Congregationalist religious dissenter and a political radical who made a bare living as a cabinet-maker, but as a side income he combed the rocky beaches at Lyme Regis and gathered seashells and other curiosities, which he sold to passers-by from a wooden stall he built near the shore. The chalk cliffs at Lyme Regis are Jurassic in age, about 200 million years old, and occasionally, Richard Anning would find fossils to sell, mostly marine ammonites and belemnites. As a young girl, Mary began helping her father gather objects at the sea shore, and became quite adept at recognizing fossilized bones. When Richard Anning died in 1810, 11-year old Mary supported herself, her brother and her mother by continuing to find and sell fossils. Her method of collecting was to search the exposed cliff faces, which were constantly being weathered away by the wind and the pounding waves.
During this time, science was undergoing a revolution. The old ideas of “natural theology”, based on readings of the Bible and attributing “fossils” as the drowned victims of Noah’s Flood, had begun to disappear, replaced by the modern scientific understanding that fossils were the remains of ancient unknown animals that had lived far far earlier than the 6,000 years claimed by the Church. The sciences of geology and paleontology were just beginning to take shape, and Mary Anning would play an important role in those sciences.
In 1811, at age 12, she made her first significant find. Noticing a skull weathering out of a hillside, she painstakingly uncovered it and, over a period of several months, revealed a complete articulated skeleton of an animal that looked, to her, something like a crocodile. Mary showed the skeleton to Henry Hoste Henley, the local Lord, who purchased it from her, then sold it to the Museum of Natural Curiosities in London. Scientists there recognized it as an entirely new kind of animal, an ocean-dwelling reptile with flippers like a dolphin. The new discovery was named Ichthyosaurus (“fish lizard”). Although this find won Mary an admiring reputation in British scientific circles, she still remained desperately poor. In 1820, British Army office Lt Col Thomas James Birch, an enthusiastic fossil collector, auctioned off a large number of fossils that he had bought from Mary, raised over 400 pounds, and donated it to her family.
Mary began to teach herself geology and paleontology, by reading books she bought with the proceeds from her fossil and seashell sales. By the time she was 20, she was an acknowledged authority on ancient Jurassic sea life. After excavating several more Ichthyosaurus skeletons, in 1823 Mary uncovered a nearly complete skeleton of a new long-necked marine reptile,Plesiosaurus, the first one ever found. When it was examined by the leading paleontologist of the day, the Frenchman Baron Georges Cuvier, he at first doubted its authenticity, but was convinced when Mary sent him several additional specimens.
The Plesiosaurus was then followed by additional spectacular finds–a flying Pterodactylus in 1828, a Squaloraja shark in 1829, and a new larger species of Plesiosaurus in 1830. Her fossil discoveries were highlighted in a lithograph published by London paleontologist Henry de la Beche, one of the scientists who had named and scientifically described her originalIchthyosaurus fossil back in 1811. De la Beche gave all the proceeds from the lithographs to Mary.
By 1840, Mary Anning was famous throughout England. She carried on letter correspondence with most of the active scientists in the world, and a number of prominent scientists, including William Buckland, Richard Owen, and Louis Agassiz, went to Dorset to hunt fossils with her. Public figures and upper-crust British society also traveled to Lyme Regis to visit with her (with the exception of one trip to London, Mary never left her home town). One visitor was Lady Harriett Silvester, who wrote of her: “The extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she had made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong. . . . by reading and application she has arrived to that greater degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom.”
Meanwhile, Mary kept finding new fossils, which she now sold in a storefront shop she had purchased in town. She often combed the beach accompanied by her dog, Tray. (In 1833, Tray was killed when one of the unstable Lyme Regis cliff faces suddenly collapsed–a landslide that nearly killed Mary, too.) In recognition of her scientific contributions, she was given an annual financial grant by the London Geological Society and the British Association for the Advancement of Science (though, as a woman, she wasn’t allowed to join), and was the first honorary member of the Dorset County Museum. Most of her fossil specimens were sold to private collectors (displaying “curiosities” was a favorite pastime of the British nobility), but she also sent fossils to museums around the world.
In 1847, Mary Anning died of breast cancer. Over the years, her contributions were largely forgotten; when the fossils she had excavated were donated to museums by the private collectors who had purchased them from her, it was the donor the museum acknowledged, not the discoverer. As a result, it is difficult today to track the whereabouts of most of the fossils Mary Anning uncovered and sold. Only two are known with absolute certainty–the Ichthyosaurusfrom 1811, and the Plesiosaurus from 1823. They are now in the Museum of Natural History in London.
Today, the fossil-bearing cliffs at Lyme Regis, known as “Jurassic Coast”, are designated as a United Nations World Heritage Site.