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Mary Anning was an English paleontologist, fossil collector, and dealer who correctly identified the first ichthyosaur skeleton fossil. She gained worldwide fame through her research in Jurassic-era marine fossil beds in the cliffs of Lyme Regis in Dorset, England, along the English Channel. Anning’s extensive research caused a shift in scientific thinking regarding the history of the Earth and prehistoric life. Despite all this, the Geological Society of London refused her entry since they did not allow women as members.

Young Life and Education

Mary Anning was born May 21, 1799, in Lyme Regis, Dorset, England. Her parents, Richard Anning and Mary “Molly” Moore married on August 8, 1793, and moved very close to the seaside in Lyme from Blandford Forum. Her father made cabinets and mined the local coastal cliffs containing fossil beds, which he sold to tourists. The family worshiped at the Dissenter chapel with other known as Congregationalists.

Mary Anning’s father raised her searching for fossils and this surely influenced her choice to study fossils as a scientist.

Anning’s parents produced ten children, but only Mary and her brother survived to adulthood.[1]

In the both Cadbury biography of Mary Anning and the Emling, locals recount the story that on August 19, 1880, the infant Mary survived a lightning striking a tree above her while being held in the arms Elizabeth Haskings. Haskings was killed along with two other women, but the baby Mary revived in a hot water bath and the ailments plaguing her previously seemed to disappear.[2]

Anning received little education in youth. She attended the local Congregationalist Sunday school to write and read, including her own copy of Dissenters' Theological Magazine and Review, which included an essay by her family pastor urging followers to study the budding science of geology.[3]

Mary Anning, the Family Business, and the Ichthyosaur

The Lyme Regis coast attracted many middle-class, wealthy tourists, after 1792 and the French Revolutionary War, who purchased fossils as “curios” and mementos. The source of the ammonites, belemnites, and vertebrae could be found along the Blue Lias. The Blue Lias is a geological formation of alternating layers of shale and limestone made from the sediment of the shallow seabed 210-195 million years ago, the Jurassic period. Frequent landslides exposing the fossils made it one of the largest fossil sites in England. Richard Anning took his children on expeditions to find and sell the fossils for money, before he died in November 1810 from complications after falling from a cliff and tuberculosis, and they continued without him.[4]

In 1811, Joseph discovered a 4-foot long ichthyosaur skull, and Mary found the remaining skeleton a few months later. Henry Hoste Henley paid the family £23 for it. William Bullock, a well-known collector, next purchased it and showed it in London. It raised many questions about the origin of the earth and sold to the British Museum in 1819. By 1825, Anning assumed complete control of the family fossil business.[5]

Scientific Discoveries and Impact

Mary Anning’s interest in fossils continued even in the face of one of the many common landslides in October 1833 that almost killed her and succeed in killing her terrier named Tray. [6]

Mary Anning remained fearless in her pursuit of fossils and contributed greatly to the field of paleontology through her findings.

On December 10, 1823, she discovered the first Plesiosaurus whole, which was displayed in the British Museum, and a Squaloraja fish skeleton in 1829. Anning taught herself as she went along and even hand-copied papers with extremely accurate illustrations. Her knowledge also came from dissections of modern fish and cuttlefish to better understand the anatomy of the fossils.[7]

Anning purchased a home with a shop in 1826, turning it into Anning’s Fossil Depot. George William Feathersonhaugh purchased fossils for the new New York Lyceum of Natural History in 1827. In 1844, King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony purchased an ichthyosaur skeleton for his personal collection. Her only published work occurred in 1839 when she wrote to the Magazine of Natural history to question a claim about the prehistoric shark Hybodus being a new genus.

The Geological Society of London grew along with her knowledge, but they did not allow women to belong as members, or even to attend meetings.[8] Her many discoveries found publishing, but always under the male geologist’s name and failed to mention her work. Even so, famous geologists visited her to discuss anatomy and classification or to collect fossils. Her friends included geologists Henry De la Benche, William Buckland, Richard Owen, and Thomas Hawkins, who all utilized her expertise to advance their own careers. Louis Agassiz, the Swiss paleontologist, visit her in 1834 and credited Mary Anning and her friend, Elizabeth Philpot, in his novel, Studies of Fossil Fish.[9]

Financial Woes, Death, and Legacy

In the 1830s, Mary Anning suffered financial difficulties and her friend Henry De la Blanche helped her sell a lithograph print of her watercolor. That December she discovered a new kind of plesiosaur that earned her £200. She continued her expeditions and held her religious faith. Then in 1835, she lost £300, most of her life savings, through a bad investment. Another friend, William Buckland, wrote to the British Association for the Advancement of Science and encouraged the British government to award her an annual civil list pension for her scientific contributions. They agreed and she received £25 until her death.[10]

Mary Anning died on March 9, 1847, from breast cancer. The Geological Society raised money to help with her funeral expenses and the new Dorset County Museum gave her honorary membership. She was buried on March 15 in the local church, St. Michael’s.[11] Henry De la Blanche, as president of the Geological Society wrote and read a eulogy during a society meeting and published in the quarterly transactions, the first ever done for a woman.[12]

In 1865, Charles Dickens published an article about Anning’s life in his literary magazine, All the Year Round. He emphasized the obstacles she overcame and applauded her scientific contributions.[13] The Royal Society of London finally recognized Anning as one of the most influential British women in science in 2010.[14] Her fame continued and Terry Sullivan based his 1908 tongue-twister, “She sells seashells on the seashore,” on Mary Anning.[15]


References

Bibliography

Cadbury, D. (2001). The Dinosaur Hunters: A True Story of Scientific Rivalry and the Discovery of the Prehistoric World. London: Fourth Estate.


Emling, S. (2009). The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Goodhue, T. W. (2002). Curious Bones: Mary Anning and the Birth of Paleontology. Greensboro, NC: Morgan Reynolds Publishing.

McGowan, C. (2001). The Dragon Seekers: How an Extraordinary Circle of Fossilists Discovered the Dinosaurs and Paved the Way for Darwin. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.


Footnotes

  1. Emling, 2009
  2. Cadbury, 2001
  3. Emling, 2009
  4. Cadbury, 2001
  5. Emling, 2009
  6. Goodhue, 2002
  7. McGowan, 2001
  8. Emling, 2009
  9. McGowan, 2001
  10. Emling, 2009
  11. McGowan, 2001
  12. The Geological Society of London (1848). The Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London (4th ed.).
  13. Dickens, C. (1865). Mary Anning, The Fossil Finder. All The Year Round, 13.
  14. The Royal Society. (2016). Most Influential British Women in Science. The Royal Society.[1]
  15. Montanari, S. (2015, May 21). Mary Anning: From Selling Seashells to One of History’s Most Important Paleontologists. Forbes.[2]

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