Born: Lyme Regis, England, May 21, 1799
Died: Lyme Regis, England, March 9, 1847
Mary Anning has been described, as 'the greatest fossilist the world ever knew', she found the first Ichthyosaurus sometime between 1809 and 1811 at the age of 10 to 12. Mary spent 30 years searching for fossils along the southern shores of Great Britain, near the small town of Lyme Regis where she lived.
She was the daughter of Richard and Mary Anning, her father Richard died in 1810.
She hunted for fossils at the cliffs near Lyme Regis, an area which is still rich in fossils from the seas of the Jurassic period.
She learned to collect fossils from her father, Richard, a cabinetmaker, and fossil hunter. He died at 44 in 1810. From the time of his death, his family often relied on charity to survive. Mary hunted fossils to sell, but the market at that time was not what it is now, and she lived always on the edge of poverty.
Anning found the world's first nearly complete plesiosaur found in 1823, and also the first pterosaur fossil to be found in England.
As a teenager Mary and her family developed a reputation as fossil hunters. They met a wealthy fossil collector named Thomas Birch in 1817. Birch credited them with several major finds in the area.
Mary sold most of her fossils to individuals and private institutions, the museums where many of her fossils are thought to have ended up in however credit only the people who donated them to the museum.
As she grew older Anning began to appreciate the scientific value of her work, and wished to be recognized for her contributions to science. Some of the scientists of the time did recognize her work; men such as Henry De la Beche, who was rumored to be romantically linked to her (although there is no evidence of this), and Gideon Mantell. William Buckland and William Conybeare did not. Mary was rumored to detest William Buckland, but her correspondence with him shows no evidence of this.
Mary was a skilled fossil hunter; her problem was that she was a woman, of a lower social class, without formal training, from a provincial area at a time when for the most part only upper-class London men, were given credit for scientific discoveries.
Mary did get some recognition, Lady Harriet Silvester, who visited her in 1824 recorded in her diary:
the extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she had made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong. . . . by reading and application she has arrived to that greater degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom.
Mary did finally get some recognition; she received an annuity from the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1838. The Geological Society of London also collected a stipend for her. In 1846 she became the first Honorary Member of the new Dorset County Museum. Lastly her obituary was published in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society; an organization that did not admit women until 1904.
The Dragon Seekers by Christopher McGowan
Scenes from Deep Time by Martin J.S. Rudwick
Fossils: Evidence of Vanished Worlds by Yvette Gayrard-Valy
Finders, Keepers by Rosamond Wolff Purcell and Stephen Jay Gould
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Pterosaurs by Peter Wellnhofer
British Journal for the History of Science, 25: 257-84, 265, 1995.