“She sells sea-shells by the seashore.” Almost everyone knows this rhyme, but few people have heard of the woman who is thought to have inspired it. Mary Anning was a fossil hunter, dealer, and paleontologist who lived from 1799 – 1847. She lived in the English coastal town of Lyme Regis, which was known for its rich fossil deposits.
Anning’s father was a carpenter, but the family collected and sold fossils as a way to supplement their income. The combination of the family’s poverty and religious views (They were Congregationalists in a time when non-Anglicans were the subject of legal discrimination.) meant that they had very low social standing. Anning learned to read and write in a Congregationalist Sunday school, but aside from that she received little education.
In 1810, when she was eleven, Anning’s father died. Just a year later, she made her first important find. She and her brother Joseph discovered a skeleton that was first described as belonging to a crocodile, but would be later be recognized as the remains of an ichthyosaur. By 1825, Anning was running the family fossil business.
Anning’s main trade was in fossils such as ammonite and belemnite shells found in the town’s seaside cliffs, hence the rhyme. Collecting fossils from the cliffs was a dangerous occupation, especially in winter, when landslides were common. Anning was nearly killed on one expedition, when a landslide took the life of her dog Tray.
Mary Anning made a number of important contributions to paleontology, a field which was still in its infancy. She is credited with discovering the Plesiosaurus, and with finding the first British pterosaur. She contributed to the discovery that coprolites are actually fossilized feces. Her work also became important evidence for extinction, which was not a widely accepted idea at the time. Despite her many important achievements, Anning continued to suffer financial difficulties and did not receive full recognition for her work. The scientific community acknowledged her as a skilled fossilist, but her work continued to be put on display without credit. Many of her fossils were purchased by wealthy collectors or scientists, and they, not she, were the ones to publish scientific descriptions of her discoveries. Sometimes, she was not even mentioned by name.
As a woman, Anning was not permitted to join or attend meetings of the Geological Society of London. However, she did have admirers and patrons among the leading scientists of the day. She was well-acquainted with several prominent geologists and paleontologists, including Roderick Murchison, Adam Sedgwick, and William Buckland. One such friend, geologist and paleontologist Henry De la Beche, commissioned a print depicting the lives of the creatures Anning discovered, with all the proceeds going to her.
Toward the end of her life, Anning began to see more recognition for her accomplishments. She was awarded an annuity by the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the British government. The £25 annual pension recognized her contributions to geology and gave her a degree of financial security. The Dorset County Museum made her an honorary member in 1846, and when she passed away from breast cancer a year later, she was the first woman to be eulogized by the Geological Society of London.
Mary Anning has been called “the greatest fossilist of all time.” Her many achievements would be stunning today; for the time in which she lived, they are nothing short of extraordinary.
British Natural History Museum
UC Berkely Museum of Paleontology