Amazing Woman: Mary Anning

Ask any young child what their favorite thing is ever and there’s a good chance they’ll say dinosaurs. Today, we are going to discuss one of the most influential women in the field of paleontology, Mary Anning.

By Credited to ‘Mr. Grey’ in Crispin Tickell’s book ‘Mary Anning of Lyme Regis’ (1996) – Two versions side by side, Sedgwick Museum. Also see here. According to the Sedgwick Museum, there are two versions. The earlier version is by an unknown artist, dated before 1842 and credited to the Geological Society. The later version is a copy by B.J. M. Donne in 1847 or 1850, and is credited to the Natural History Museum in London. Also see here., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3824696

Born 1799 in Lyme Regis in Dorset, England, Mary grew up in the popular seaside resort area which was already popular for selling ‘curios’ to tourists, many of which were actually fossils including “snake-stones” (ammonites), “devil’s fingers” (belemnites), and “verteberries” (vertebrae). These items ended up in curio chests and cabinets all over the world and were thought to have medicinal and mystical properties.

Richard, Mary’s father, would take her and her brother, Joseph, to the coastal cliffs which were part of the Blue Lias. The unique formation of limestone and shale made this perfect fossil hunting territory. The family would collect and sell these fossils to supplement their income.

Mary’s father died when she was eleven and she continued to search for fossils to sell in order to support her family. It was during one of these searches that she and her brother came across their first major find when her brother dug up a four-foot-long ichthyosaur skull. Mary found the rest of the skeleton a few months later. She was only twelve. That skull was sold at auction to Charles Konig of the British Museum for £45 and five shillings.

Some say her story led to the creation of the popular tongue twister “She sells seashells on the seashore” by Terry Sullivan published in 1908.

By Thomas Webster (1773-1844) – Transactions of the Geological Society of London (1824), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9001159

At the age of 24, Mary found the first complete Plesiosaurus skeleton. That same year, she was nearly crushed by a landslide that killed her dog, Tray. Five years later, she found the first of the pterosaurs ever to be seen outside of Germany. They called them “flying dragons” at the time.

Mary Anning quickly became known in the fossil community as an expert in the different families of bones and was consulted often. During her life, she was not allowed to join the Geological Society of London because she was a woman. In fact, the only publication she is ever named in is the Magazine of Natural History in 1839 where she wrote a letter to the editor questioning one of its claims.

Her discoveries played an important role in the discovery of coprolites were actually fossilized feces and that belemnite follis contained fossilized ink sacs much like those found in modern cephalopods.

Mary died young at the age of 47 of breast cancer. In 2010, the Royal Society included her in a list of the ten British Women who have most influenced the history of science.

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