Mary Anning (1799 –1847) was a palaeontologist working in Lyme Regis particularly during the winter months when landslides exposed new fossils that had to be collected quickly before they were lost to the sea. This was dangerous work and she nearly lost her life in 1833 during a landslide that killed her dog, Tray. To protect herself from falling rocks she took to wearing a top hat when collecting.
She became well known in geological circles in Britain, Europe, and America, but was not eligible to join the Geological Society of London (which did not admit women until 1904) and she did not always receive full credit for her scientific contributions. In 2010, one hundred and sixty-three years after her death, the Royal Society included Anning in a list of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science.
Her finds included the first ichthyosaur skeleton correctly identified; the first two plesiosaur skeletons found, and the first pterosaur skeleton located outside Germany. Neither ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, nor pterosaurs are dinosaurs. Scientifically speaking, dinosaurs (Dinosauria) form a single clade (a group of organisms with a common ancestor), and are characterized by having a very specific hind-limb posture. So Mary Anning never discovered a true dinosaur.
Until the 1820s, many people believed that extinctions couldn’t happen as that would imply God’s creation was imperfect. Mary’s discoveries of the remains of so many strange creatures never seen alive was convincing evidence they had died out.
Victorian fossil hunter Mary Anning was the inspiration for the tongue twister ‘She Sells Sea Shells’. It was originally a song, with words by Terry Sullivan and music by Harry Gifford, written in 1908, inspired by Mary Anning’s life:
She sells sea-shells on the sea-shore.
The shells she sells are sea-shells, I'm sure.
For if she sells sea-shells on the sea-shore
Then I'm sure she sells sea-shore shells.
Fossil hunting didn’t make Mary rich. Her father, a cabinetmaker, died when she was eleven, leaving the family in debt, so she sold her fossils to make a living, hence the song.
In 1820, having made no major discoveries for a year, she was at the point of having to sell the furniture to pay the rent when she was rescued by one of her most avid buyers, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas James Birch, who auctioned his entire collection to raise funds for her.
The carpenter's daughter has won a name for herself, and deserved to win it.
The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone.
On 19 August 1800, when Mary was 15 months old, she was being held in the arms of a neighbour who, with two other women, was sheltering under a tree during a storm. Lightning struck the tree and all three women were killed.
Mary was revived in a bath of hot water and her subsequent curiosity, intelligence and lively personality were put down to the sudden shock. A local doctor declared her survival miraculous.
Mary discovered that belemnite fossils contained fossilised ink sacs, suggesting they came from cephalopods.
The belemnite is the state fossil of Delaware.
Mary was one of 10 children, only two of whom survived to adulthood.
Mary opened a shop called Anning's Fossil Depot in 1826 and had a 'fine ichthyosaur skeleton' on display.
Mary discovered that ‘bezoar’ stones were actually fossilized poo (coprolites) when she opened one and discovered fish scales and teeth.
The first complete pterosuar Mary discovered was displayed at the British Museum under the name ‘flying dragon’.