Mary Anning

Mary Anning bigraphy, stories - Geologist, palaeontologist

Mary Anning : biography

21 May 1799 – 9 March 1847

Mary Anning (21 May 1799 – 9 March 1847) was a British fossil collector, dealer, and paleontologist who became known around the world for a number of important finds she made in the Jurassic marine fossil beds at Lyme Regis in Dorset, where she lived.Dennis Dean writes that Anning pronounced her name "Annin" (see ), and when she wrote it down for Carl Gustav Carus, an aide to King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony, she wrote "Annins" (see ). Her work contributed to fundamental changes that occurred during her lifetime in scientific thinking about prehistoric life and the history of the Earth.

Anning searched for fossils in the area’s Blue Lias cliffs, particularly during the winter months when landslides exposed new fossils that had to be collected quickly before they were lost to the sea. It was dangerous work, and she nearly lost her life in 1833 during a landslide that killed her dog, Tray. Her discoveries included the first ichthyosaur skeleton to be correctly identified, which she and her brother Joseph found when she was just twelve years old; the first two plesiosaur skeletons ever found; the first pterosaur skeleton located outside Germany; and some important fish fossils. Her observations played a key role in the discovery that coprolites, known as bezoar stones at the time, were fossilised faeces. She also discovered that belemnite fossils contained fossilised ink sacs like those of modern cephalopods. When geologist Henry De la Beche painted Duria Antiquior, the first widely circulated pictorial representation of a scene from prehistoric life derived from fossil reconstructions, he based it largely on fossils Anning had found, and sold prints of it for her benefit.

Anning’s gender and social class prevented her from fully participating in the scientific community of 19th-century Britain, dominated as it was by wealthy Anglican gentlemen. She struggled financially for much of her life. Her family were poor, and as religious dissenters, were subject to legal discrimination. Her father, a cabinetmaker, died when she was eleven.

She became well known in geological circles in Britain, Europe, and America, and was consulted on issues of anatomy as well as about collecting fossils. Nonetheless, as a woman, she was not eligible to join the Geological Society of London and she did not always receive full credit for her scientific contributions. Indeed, she wrote in a letter: "The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone." The only scientific writing of hers published in her lifetime appeared in the Magazine of Natural History in 1839, an extract from a letter that Anning had written to the magazine’s editor questioning one of its claims.

After her death in 1847, her unusual life story attracted increasing interest. Charles Dickens wrote of her in 1865 that "[t]he carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it." 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.

Major discoveries


Anning’s first famous discovery was made shortly after her father’s death. In 1811 (some sources say 1810 or 1809) her brother Joseph found a 4 ft (1.3m) skull, but failed to locate the rest of the animal. After Joseph told her to look between the cliffs at Lyme Regis and Charmouth, Mary found the skeleton—17 feet long in all (5.2m)—a few months later. The family hired workmen to dig it out in November that year, an event covered by the local press on 9 November, who identified the fossil as a crocodile.

Other ichthyosaur remains had been discovered in years past at Lyme and elsewhere, but the specimen found by the Annings was the first to come to the attention of scientific circles in London. It was purchased by the lord of a local manor, who passed it to William Bullock for public display in London where it created a sensation. At a time when most people in Britain still believed in a literal interpretation of Genesis, that the earth was only a few thousand years old and that species did not evolve or become extinct,, The Academy of Natural Sciences. Retrieved 23 September 2010. the find raised questions in scientific and religious circles about what the new science of geology was revealing about ancient life and the history of the earth. Its notoriety increased when Sir Everard Home wrote a series of six papers, starting in 1814, describing it for the Royal Society. The papers never mentioned who had collected the fossil, and in the first one he even mistakenly credited the painstaking cleaning and preparation of the fossil performed by Anning to the staff at Bullock’s museum. Perplexed by the creature, Home kept changing his mind about its classification, first thinking it was a kind of fish, then thinking it might have some kind of affinity with the duck-billed platypus (only recently known to science); finally in 1819 he reasoned it might be a kind of intermediate form between salamanders and lizards, which led him to propose naming it Proteo-Saurus. By then Charles Konig, an assistant curator of the British Museum, had already suggested the name Ichthyosaurus (fish lizard) for the specimen and that name stuck. Konig purchased the skeleton for the museum in 1819. The skull of the specimen is still in the possession of the Natural History Museum in London (to which the fossil collections of the British Museum were transferred later in the century), but at some point, it became separated from the rest of the skeleton, the location of which is not known.