Born in the coastal southern English town of Lyme Regis in Dorset, Mary Anning was (it is said) marked out for an unusual life at the age of 15 months. In 1800 a lightning strike in the village caught four women in the open, killing three; the survivor was young Mary.
Mary's father Richard was a cabinet maker who supplemented his income by mining the coastal cliff-side fossil beds near Lyme Regis, then selling his finds to tourists. When he died of tuberculosis in 1810, the Anning family was left without support, and Mary (along with her brother Joseph) began collecting full-time in an effort to gain some income.
Fossil collecting was in vogue in the late 18th century and early 19th century, at first as a pastime akin to stamp collecting but gradually transforming into a science as the importance of fossils to geology and biology became understood. Anning catered to the commercial side of the field, selling her finds. Soon, however, she forged relationships within the scientific community, whose passion for fossils grew to be a major source of income for her.
The first cause of this connection was one of Anning's discoveries, in 1811, a few months after her father's death, the skeleton of an ichthyosaur. Her brother had discovered the skull of what appeared to be a large crocodile a year earlier. The rest of the skeleton was not to be found at first, but Mary came up with it after a storm scoured away a portion of the cliff containing it. This was the first complete skeleton of an ichthyosaur ever discovered, though not the first ichthyosaur fossil ever, as is sometimes reported (the genus had been described in 1699 from fragments discovered in Wales). Nevertheless, it was an important find, and was soon described in the Transactions of the Royal Society. Anning was no more than twelve years old at the time of her discovery. She went on to find two other distinct species of Ichthyosaur.
As her reputation grew, Anning came to the attention of Thomas Birch, a wealthy fossil collector. Disturbed by the poverty of Mary and her family he arranged for the sale of his own fossil collection, the proceeds of which (some £400) were given to the Annings. Put on a sure (if somewhat spartan) financial footing for the first time in a decade, Mary carried on with her fossil collecting even after her brother gained employment as an upholsterer.
Her next major discovery was a real first, the first-ever skeleton of a plesiosaur in 1821. The fossil she found was subsequently described, by William Conybeare as Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus and is the type specimen (holotype) of the species, which itself is the type species of the genus. She found an 'unrivalled specimen' of Dapedium politum, a ray-finned fish, as described in 1828. In 1828 she discovered an important fossil of a pterosaur, a Pterodactylus macronyx (later renamed by Richard Owen Dimorphodon macronyx), the first found outside of Germany and thought to be the first complete skeleton.
Those were the three finds that made her mark on history, but she continued collecting for the remainder of her life, making numerous other contributions to early paleontology. In her late thirties she was granted an annuity by the British Association for the Advancement of Science in return for her efforts. Anning died at the age of 47, of breast cancer; a few months beforehand she had been made an honorary member of the Geological Society of London despite being ineligible for regular membership due to the sexist mores of the time.
Taken all together, Mary Anning's discoveries became key pieces of evidence for extinction. Until her time it was widely believed that animals did not become extinct; any oddities found were explained away as still living somewhere in an unexplored region of the earth. The bizarre nature of the fossil skeletons found by Anning struck a heavy blow against this argument, and set the stage for real understanding of life in earlier geologic ages.
For a time after her death, Mary dropped into obscurity but, in recent decades, she has been rediscovered and lauded as one of the most important and picturesque figures in early paleontology. She had no degree and no schooling in paleontology. She was self-taught, yet reached a level of expertise that astounded those with whom she came in contact. Her advice and opinion were sought by many. Without a biology training, she was able to draw specimens and record findings, exactly as they were found, showing a natural capability as a fossil hunter and worthy scientist in the field.
After her death, a eulogy was read at the Geographical Society, 'some members' of which subsequently contributed to a stained-glass window to her memory, in the parish church of St Michael the Archangel, the Society having failed to elect her to membership during her lifetime, possibly as a result of latter-day ‘genderism’. The inscription reads: "This window is sacred to the memory of Mary Anning of this parish, who died 9 March AD 1847 and is erected by the vicar and some members of the Geological Society of London in commemoration of her usefulness in furthering the science of geology, as also of her benevolence of heart and integrity of life." (It depicts the corporal works of mercy, i.e. feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless visiting prisoners and visiting the sick.)
Mary Anning is believed to be the source of the old tongue-twister, "She sells sea shells by the sea shore." More recently, she is the subject of a song, "Anning, Mary" by the group "Artichoke."
- Torrens, Hugh. 1995. "Mary Anning (1799-1847) of Lyme: 'the greatest fossilist the world ever knew'," British Journal for the History of Science, 25:257-284.
- Anon. 1828. "Another discovery by Mary Anning of Lyme. An unrivalled specimen of Dapedium politum an antediluvian fish." Salisbury and Winchester Journal, 108:5599 2.
- Duria Antiquior - 'a more ancient Dorsetshire' an 1830 watercolour, by Henry Thomas de la Beche, of the seas of ancient Dorset, designed to highlight Mary Anning's discoveries
- Mary Anning, Finder of Fossils
- Lyme Regis Museum - Mary Anning
- Berkeley article
- Laurence Anholt, Stone Girl Bone Girl: The Story of Mary Anning, ISBN 1-84507-700-8, Frances Lincoln Publishers 2006
- Jeannine Atkins, Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon, ISBN 0-374-34840-5, Farrar Straus Giroux 1999
- Don Brown, Rare Treasure: Mary Anning and Her Remarkable Discoveries, ISBN 0-618-31081-9, Houghton Mifflin Co 2003
- Nigel J. Clarke, Mary Anning 1799-1847: A Brief History, ISBN 0-907683-57-6, Clarke (Nigel J) Publications 1998
- Sheila Cole, The Dragon in the Cliff: A Novel Based on the Life of Mary Anning, ISBN 0-595-35074-7, iUniverse.com 2005
- Marie Day, Dragon in the Rocks: A Story Based on the Childhood of the Early Paleontologist, Mary Anning, ISBN 1-895688-38-8, Maple Tree Press 1995
- Dennis B. Fradin, Mary Anning: The Fossil Hunter (Remarkable Children), ISBN 0-382-39487-9, Silver Burdett Press 1997
- Thomas W. Goodhue, Curious Bones: Mary Anning and the Birth of Paleontology (Great Scientists), ISBN 1-883846-93-5
- Thomas W. Goodhue, Fossil Hunter: The Life and Times of Mary Anning (1799-1847), ISBN 1-930901-55-0, cademica Pr Llc 2004
- Patricia Pierce, Jurassic Mary: Mary Anning and the Primeval Monsters, ISBN 0-7509-4039-5, Sutton Publishing 2006
- Crispin Tickell, Mary Anning of Lyme Regis, ISBN 0-9527662-0-5, Lyme Regis Philpot Museum 1996
- Sally M. Walker, Mary Anning: Fossil Hunter (On My Own Biographies (Hardcover)), ISBN 1-57505-425-6, Carolrhoda Books 2000