Mary Anning

The greatest fossil hunter ever known was a woman from Lyme Regis. Mary Anning's discoveries were some of the most significant geological finds of all time. They provided evidence that was central to the development of new ideas about the history of the Earth.

Portrait of Mary Anning

Mary Anning (1799-1847).

Mary’s contribution had a major impact at a time when there was little to challenge the biblical interpretation of the story of creation and of the flood. The spectacular marine reptiles that Mary unearthed shook the scientific community into looking at different explanations for changes in the natural world. William Buckland, Henry de la Beche and William Conybeare were some of the many scientists who owe their achievements to her. By the time of her death, geology was firmly established as its own scientific discipline.

Work

Early life and dangerous living

Mary was born on 21 May 1799 into a humble family of dissenters in Lyme Regis, on the Dorset coast. She and her brother Joseph were the only survivors among 10 children born to Richard Anning and his wife Mary Moore. 

Named after a sister who died in a house fire, Mary herself survived a lightning strike that killed three others. Legend had it the lightning turned her into a bright and observant child.

Selling seashells on the seashore

Her father Richard was a carpenter and cabinet-maker who taught his daughter how to look for and to clean fossils. 

They sold the ‘curiosities’ they collected from a stall on the seafront, where they found customers among the middle classes who flocked to Lyme in the summer. 

Their shop was such a feature of the area that some people think that Mary was the inspiration for the well-known tongue-twister 'She sells seashells on the seashore', which was written by Terry Sullivan in1908.

Hardships

The family remained very poor though and when Richard died in 1810 aged only 44, as a result of consumption and injuries following a fall, it brought great hardship.

Young Mary supplemented their meagre income by continuing the trade. She had a good eye for fossils. The cliffs and foreshore at Lyme are rich in belemnites and ammonites, and occasionally reptiles and fishes, deposited from Jurassic seas 200 million years ago. 

Waves from the sea and landslides constantly exposed new supplies. There were good pickings but it was a dangerous living – mudflows, treacherous tides, unstable cliffs and unforgiving seas.

First fabulous find

In 1811, Mary’s brother Joseph found a skull protruding from a cliff. Over a period of months Mary painstakingly uncovered an almost complete skeleton of a ‘crocodile’. 

The specimen was bought by the local lord of the manor Henry Hoste Henley who sold it to William Bullock for his Museum of Natural Curiosities in London. 

This brought Mary’s reputation to the attention of scientific circles. The specimen was later named Ichthyosaurus, the ‘fish-lizard’, by scientists de la Beche and Conybeare.

Help for destitute family

The Anning family had now established themselves as fossil hunters. However they remained poor, almost destitute. 

In 1820 one of their patrons, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas James Birch, organised an auction of specimens he had purchased from them. 

The sale attracted interest from Britain and all over Europe and raised £400 which he generously donated to them. The publicity consolidated Mary’s fame.

More sensational fossils

Further sensational finds were made. New, more complete skeletons of ichthyosaurs were discovered. This was followed by a complete skeleton of the long-necked Plesiosaurus, the ‘sea-dragon’ in 1823. It proved the inspiration for Thomas Hawkins’ 1840 publication Book of the Great Sea Dragons. 

This was followed by the ‘flying-dragon’ Pterodactylus in 1828, and Squaloraja, a fossil fish intermediary between a shark and a ray, in 1829. 

In the winter of 1830, she found a new, large-headed Plesiosaurus, bought for 200 guineas, £210, by William Willoughby, later Earl of Enniskillen. Her discoveries were featured in the lithograph Duria Antiquior, A More Ancient Dorset, prepared by Henry de la Beche around1830 for her financial benefit.

A popular figure

Mary was literate, despite having only a little education. She taught herself geology and anatomy. She was visited by, and corresponded with, eminent scientists of the time. 

Her opinions were sought and she was acknowledged as an expert in many areas, including on the rather unglamorous coprolites (fossil faeces). 

Surprisingly, members of fashionable society called on her at Lyme. Their curiosity was mixed with enchantment at her fossil hunting and her intelligence and humour.

Mary had her detractors too. Georges Cuvier, France’s eminent anatomist, accused her of fraud, an allegation she ably refuted. 

Mary also made the discovery that ink from squid-like belemnites can be ground up and used for drawing.

Dorset home

Her life revolved around Lyme Regis. She only left once in her lifetime, for a short trip to London. Her picture shows a middle aged woman, carrying with her hammer, accompanied by her dog, Tray.

Final recognition

Mary died from breast cancer, aged 47. For one with such disadvantaged beginnings, she had gained the respect and imagination of scientific and lay public who gave her recognition in her lifetime. 

Nine years before her death she was given an annuity, or annual payment, raised by members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Geological Society of London. 

She was the first honorary member of the new Dorset County Museum. 

Her death in 1847 was recorded by the Geological Society (which did not admit women until 1904) and her life commemorated by a stained glass window in the local church.

Timeline

1799Born 21 May, Lyme Regis, Dorset, England.
1800Survived a lightning strike.
1801Act of Union creates Great Britain.
1805Battle of Trafalgar.
1807Abolition of slave trade.
1810Richard Anning, her father, dies.
1812First important find, a complete fossil 'crocodile'.
1814Everard Home names the 'crocodile' Proteosaurus.
1815Battle of Waterloo and defeat of Napoleon
1817Richard Owen renames the 'crocodile' Ichthyosaurus.
1820Anning specimens auctioned for £400.
1821William Conybeare and Henry de la Beche publishes a notice on the discovery of Plesiosaurus.
1823Discovers complete Plesiosaurus.
1828Discovers Pterodactylus.
1829Discovers Squaloraja.
1830Discovers another Plesiosaurus.
1830George IV dies.
1837Victoria ascends the throne.
1838Mary awarded an annual income.
1842Mother, also called Mary Anning, dies.
1846Subscription raised for Mary by the Geological Society of London
1847Mary dies, 9 March 1847, in Lyme Regis.
1850Stained glass window in church unveiled in her honour.