Born: Lyme Regis, England, May 21, 1799
Died: Lyme Regis, England, March 9, 1847
Finder of Fossils
Mary Anning lived through a life of privation and hardship to become what one source called "the greatest fossilist the world ever knew."* Anning is credited with finding the first specimen of Ichthyosaurus acknowledged by the Geological Society in London. She also discovered the first nearly complete example of the Plesiosaurus; the first British Pterodactylus macronyx, a fossil flying reptile; the Squaloraja fossil fish, a transitional link between sharks and rays; and finally the Plesiosaurus macrocephalus.
Her history is incomplete and contradictory. Some accounts of her life have been fictionalized, and her childhood discoveries have been mythologized. She was a curiosity in her own time, bringing tourism to her home town of Lyme Regis. Only her personal qualities and her long experience brought her any recognition at all, since she was a woman, of a lower social class, and from a provincial area at a time when upper-class London men, gentlemanly scholars, received the bulk of the credit for geological discoveries.
Anning learned to collect fossils from her father, Richard, a cabinet maker by trade and a fossil collector by avocation. But he died at 44 in 1810, leaving his family destitute. They relied on charity to survive.
Fossil collecting was a dangerous business in the seaside town. Anning walked and waded under unstable cliffs at low tide, looking for specimens dislodged from the rocks. During her teenage years, the family built both a reputation and a business as fossil hunters. In 1817 they met Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Birch, a well-to-do fossil collector who became a supporter of the family. He attributed major discoveries in the area to them, and he arranged to sell his personal collection of fossils for the family's benefit. Most of Anning's fossils were sold to institutions and private collectors, but museums tended to credit only people who donated the fossils to the institution. Therefore, it has been difficult for historians to trace many fossils that Mary Anning located; the best known are a small Ichthyosaurus discovered in 1821 and the first Plesiosaurus, unearthed in 1823.
Mary had some recognition for her intellectual mastery of the anatomy of her subjects, from Lady Harriet Silvester, who visited Anning in 1824 and recorded in her diary:
Visitors to Lyme increased as Anning won the respect of contemporary scientists. In the last decade of her life she received an annuity from the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1838). The Geological Society of London collected a stipend for her and she was named the first Honorary Member of the new Dorset County Museum, one year before her death from breast cancer. Her obituary was published in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society--an organization that would not admit women until 1904.
* Annotation on an undated letter from Mary Anning to one of the Misses Philpot of Lyme, in the collection of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, cited in Torrens, Hugh: "Mary Anning (1799-1847] of Lyme: 'the greatest fossilist the world ever knew,' British Journal for the History of Science, 25: 257-84, 1995.
For more information see The Lyme Regis Philpot Museum