Mary Anning (1799-1847) made several important discoveries as an amateur fossil collector in the first half of the nineteenth century, including a nearly complete skeleton of an Ichthyosaur. Her findings were key to the development paleontology as a scientific discipline in Britain.
Anning was born on May 21, 1799, in Lyme Regis, Dorset, England, the daughter of Richard and Mary Moore Anning. The Annings had nearly ten children, but only Mary and her elder brother Joseph survived to adulthood. On August 19, 1800, Anning narrowly escaped death during a lightening storm. She was one of four people who found shelter under an elm tree in Rack Field near Lyme Regis. Only Anning survived when the tree was struck by lightening. Local legend had it that her intelligence increased significantly after the incident.
Richard Anning made his living as a cabinet maker and carpenter. As a hobby and for extra income, he collected fossils. They were cleaned, polished, and sold to summer tourists. The area in which the Annings lived was rich with fossils. Their hometown, Lyme Regis, was located on the southwest coast of England. About 200 million years earlier, the region had been a sea bottom, where numerous dinosaur remains were fossilized after their death. As sea level fell, these fossils could be found on the beach and above it, especially in the exposed rocky cliffs. Richard Anning was among the first to take advantage of the tourist trade, which increased as Lyme Regis became a summer resort seaside town in the late 1700s. A popular item was what the locals dubbed "curiosities," a coiled shell. Later, it was determined that these shells were ammonites, a type of mollusk that lived in the Jurassic Period.
Richard Anning was not the only townsperson to sell collected fossils, but he did interest his whole family in the enterprise, including daughter Mary. Anning had only a limited education, perhaps only a few years in a parish school, but she learned much about the business and the fossils from her father. She developed extraordinary skills in fossil collecting. Her abilities came in handy when Richard Anning died in 1810, leaving his family destitute and in debt for £120. He had been suffering from consumption and had fallen off a cliff before his death. Her brother Joseph was already working as an apprentice to an upholsterer, so the burden of providing an income for the family fell to Anning and her mother. Anning viewed fossil collecting as their only means of support, except for charity given to the family by their local parish from 1811 until 1815.
In 1811 or 1812, Anning made her first important discovery. Though sources differ on the sequence of events and who was involved, it is clear that Anning was primarily responsible for the finding of a well-preserved, nearly complete skeleton of what came to be called an Ichthysaurus ("fish-lizard"). Some said that her brother Joseph found the skull first, or they found the head together, separate from the rest of the body. Others believed that Anning found the whole fossil on her own. Anning then hired workers to dig out the block in which it was embedded. In any case, the ten-meter (30 feet) long skeleton created a sensation and made Anning famous. She sold it to Henry Hoste Henley, a local collector, for £23. Eventually it made its way to the London Museum of Natural History, and a debate ensued over what to name the creature, a marine reptile with a long body and tail, small limbs, and trim head. It was dubbed Ichthysaurus in 1817.
This discovery was important to science as well as Anning's livelihood. Though life in the Anning family was difficult for the next decade, Anning herself was developing important skills. She became a good observer, who could provide vital information to scientists. She knew the area well and became expert at predicting where fossils might be found after storms. Anning also became adept at removing the fossils without causing ant damage. Though Anning and her mother were the primary fossil hunters, they was often accompanied by her brother or a local friend, Henry De le Beche, who later became a geologist. The family was also aided by Thomas James Birch, who helped them sell many of their fossils before Anning became an adult.
Discovered Complete Plesiosaurus
In 1823, Anning made another important discovery, perhaps her greatest. She found the first complete Plesiosaurus ("near lizard"). This was a reptile that was nine-feet long and lived in the sea. It had a long neck, short tail, small head, and four flippers that were pointed and shaped like paddles. They were very rare, and Anning's discovery led to the creation of a new genus. The specimen was sold to Richard Grenville for about £100, though sources differ and the amount could have been as much as $pound;200. Anning and her mother developed a reputation for being effective negotiators with those who wanted to buy their specimens.
By this time, Anning's contributions and skills were being recognized by those in the field. She had her own retail shop in Lyme Regis. The shop was a tourist attraction that also drew interested scientists. Anning shared her knowledge with both segments of society when they visited Lyme Regis. Many were surprised at the level of her understanding of fossils. Anning also held an extensive correspondence with experts in the field, both in Britain and other countries. Yet, for Anning, this was also a business. She had a shrewd business sense and came to know her market well. She often sought out specialists or museums that paid more for her unusual fossil. With each major discovery, Anning started a bidding war. For example, her second complete Plesiosaurus was sold to the London Natural History Museum for £100.
In 1828, Anning made two major findings. She found the anterior sheath and ink bag of a Belemnosepia, an invertebrate. This was her first finding in invertebrate paleontology. The same year Anning also discovered a Pterodactylus macronyx, British pterosaur ("wing finger"), the first pterodactyl of the Dimorphodon genus. An Oxford University professor named this fossil. The discovery brought Anning even more attention, on a nation-wide level. It was this celebrity that might have prompted her visit to London in 1829, the only recorded leave she took of Lyme Regis. Anning continued to make important discoveries in 1829 and 1830. In the former, she found the fossil of Squaloraja, a fish that seemed to be an evolutionary step between rays and sharks. In 1830, Anning discovered a Plesiosaurus macrocephalus, which was bought for £200 by William Willoughby.
In 1838, Anning's income from her shop began to be supplemented by a grant of £25 per year. This was paid for by the British Association for the Advancement of Science and government funds approved by William Lamb, Lord Melbourne, Britain's prime minister. Later in her life, the Geological Society of London granted Anning an honorary membership. In 1846, the Society also gave her further funds when it was learned that she had developed cancer. That same year the Dorset County Museum named her its first honorary member.
Anning died of breast cancer on March 9, 1847, in Lyme Regis. She never married, and the only immediate family left was her brother and his wife, Amelia. The town of Lyme Regis suffered financial losses after her death because fewer tourists were drawn there without its star attraction. However, the fossils she collected can still be found in museums around the world, including the Natural History Museum in London and Oxford University. Yet Anning's name is essentially unknown. Geologist Hugh Torrens told Gail Vines of New Scientist, "Lord Gnome, who bought Anning's fossil, is honoured-she, as workman and tradesman, is invisible."
Anning's legacy has remained alive over the years. A tongue twister ("she sells seashells by the seashore") was believed to have been written about her. About 15 years after her death, the scientists of the Geological Society of London gave the church in Lyme Regis a stained-glass window in her honor. It depicted the six corporal acts of mercy. By the late twentieth century, the Lyme Regis Museum stood where a home of Anning's once stood. Its primary purpose was preserving Anning's legacy. Scientific historian, Hugh Torrens, wrote this of Anning, "If I could create my own myth about Mary Anning, it would be to equate her with Diana as the hunter."
Further Reading on Mary Anning
Chambers Biographical Dictionary, edited by Melanie Parry, Chambers, 1997.
Dictionary of National Biography, supplement volume one, edited by Sidney Lee, Smith, Elder & Co., 1901.
The Europa Biographical Dictionary of British Women, edited by Anne Crawford et al, Europa Publications, 1983.
The Macmillan Dictionary of Women's Biography, second edition, edited by Jennifer Uglow, Macmillan Reference Books, 1989.
Oglivie, Marilyn Bailey, Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1986.
Stille, Darlene R., Extraordinary Women Scientists, Childrens Press, 1995.
Women of Science: Righting the Record, edited by G. Kass-Simon and Patricia Farnes, Indiana University Press, 1990.
Yount, Lisa, A to Z of Women in Science and Math, Facts on File, Inc., 1999.
Antiques & Collecting, September 1994, p. 22.
British Journal for the History of Science, September 1995, p. 257.
New Scientist, September 26, 1992, p. 49.