The Story of Mary Anning--"A Most Remarkable Woman"

Mary Anning with her dog, Tray.  There are few images of her, and most seem to be based on this painting of 1845. Later "reproductions" of this portrait add a fossil mollusk shell lying next to Tray and give Mary a more serious expression.

We tend to think of 18th and early 19th century scientists as older, full-bearded men, dressed in waist coats and boiled shirts. In one well-known early photo Darwin sits in profile, contemplating the deep secrets of nature and the implacable march of evolution.

A good deal of that image is true. Serious scientists were almost universally men until the Madame Curies of the world sprang onto the stage. Women were not even admitted to the English universities until the 20th century and the French were just as slow. Recognition for any budding scientist was slow to come, in part due to the snail-like pace of dissemination of scientific literature (and the lack of the Internet), so well-known scientists tended to be middle-aged and, because science was not supported much by government, business or universities, tended to be at least upper middle class.

In light of all that, how likely is it that the daughter of a simple cabinetmaker from a seashore town in southern England would turn out to be one of the most important paleontologists of the 19th century, the era when we leapt from superstition and guesswork about geology, evolution, and the origin of the Earth and its creatures to a real scientific understanding of the beginnings of the Earth, the life on it and how we got from there to here? Not very likely, but it is a fact. This is her story.

Mary Anning was born in 1799 to a Lyme Regis cabinetmaker and his wife. Of ten children born to the couple, only Mary and her brother Joseph survived to adulthood. Mary’s father made a few extra shillings by collecting fossils from the beaches and sedimentary cliffs around the town. Almost all he collected and sold to tourists were ammonites—the fossilized coiled shell of mollusks from the Jurassic period.

Ammonites were not well understood until about 100 years before Mary’s lifetime. In the 1660s Nicholas Steno, called by some the first “geologist,” identified them as the fossilized shell of sea creatures—mollusks—trapped in layers of sediment on the sea floor. Before Steno they were variously explained as plant-like things somehow “grown” in the ground by the action of water or as snakes turned to stone as the result of the intercession of Saints such as Saint Patrick (ammonites were often carved to display a snake’s head on one end as a way of promoting tourist sales, but Mary did no such carving).

Steno observed that ammonites were frequently found in the rocks of the highest Swiss Alps, suggesting that neither a wandering Saint nor the sedate growth of some plant-like thing was responsible. His observations eventually led him to write a book on geological stratification and to suggest that the Alps had been raised by natural forces. Despite disavowing Saints ossifying snakes, Steno, himself, was sainted in 1988.


                                                            Nicholas Steno

Mary, as a young girl accompanying her father on fossil searches, learned how to spot the fossils but, sadly, Mary’s father passed away in 1810 when Mary was barely 11 years old. Mary had received only minimal formal education—a few years in the local church school, but she had learned to read and write. The family got by on charity from the church and 11-year-old Mary’s renewed efforts at hunting fossils for sale to the tourists.  

A bit of luck, Mary’s persistence, and her well-trained eye intervened. In 1811 or perhaps 1812 she discovered the first nearly complete fossil skeleton ever discovered of what we call today an Ichthyosaur, a huge dinosaur that lived in the ocean and preyed on sea creatures. It was so large that Mary, then but 12, needed professional help in excavating the block of rock in which it was embedded. The thing was 30 feet long and caused an utter sensation. She sold it to a local collector for a much needed 23 pounds, but the find itself was enough to make her known to the fossil collecting community.

Mary's Ichthyosaur.

Mary became expert in extracting fossilized animal skeletons from surrounding rock and assembling them on frames in natural posture. Her finds were sold to museums and collections all around Europe, and she became not only well known, but also a bit more economically secure, although she was never “middle class.”  

In the ensuing 20 years Mary continued her remarkable finds. She unearthed several more complete Ichthyosaurs, the first Plesiosaur (another dinosaur denizen of the Jurassic seas, about 15 feet long, including a long neck) and one of the first Pterodactyl (the bird-like flying dinosaur with a 5-foot wing span) along with many, many more.


Mary's First Plesiosaur

One of Mary's Pterodactyls

Her finds were not limited to large dinosaurs.  As important scientifically, she discovered Squaloraja, a bat-winged fish, and the anterior sheath and ink sac of an invertebrate, which came to be called Belemnosepia.  She also correctly identified as coprolites round fossilized balls, which had been discovered in many places and had puzzled the experts for years.  Coprolites are fossilized animal dung.  Dinosaurs may have had big teeth, but their digestive processes left something to be desired.  Their coprolite fossils contained the entombed skeletal remains of animals and plants they had eaten, giving modern science invaluable clues to the diet and life style of dinosaurs and other large animals of the period.  These are images of two fossil coprolites, which vary widely in form.

Finally, Mary began to receive real scientific recognition.  The British Association for the Advancement of Science gave her an annual stipend, and the Geographic Society of London made her an honorary member.  She became well known in scientific circles, and her detailed written descriptions of her finds became the source of much scientific work.  Displays of large fossilized skeletons in museums and private collections began to identify Mary as the person who had discovered the fossil and mounted it.  Until that time  the donor or owner of the fossil was identified,  but Mary was ignored.

In March 2010 the British Royal Society named Mary Anning as the third most influential woman scientist.  Better later than never.

Mary developed breast cancer in 1846 and passed away a year later.  She is buried with her brother and fellow fossil hunter Joseph in the Lyme Regis Cemetery, not far from where she made her greatest finds. 

Mary’s achievements, in the face of the benign neglect of the male dominated 19th century scientific community, are remarkable.  Her skill at finding, assembling and describing fossils added significantly to our understanding of the evolution of life on Earth and added significant proof in support of James Hutton’s concept that geologic change occurred over “deep time” – millions and millions of years.  She took Steno’s ideas that fossils were created by the fossilization of sea creatures trapped in sedimentary layers a step further and placed fossilization on dry land as well.  Animals like the Pterodactylus irrefutably lived only on land and could only have been entombed, fossilized and buried and then emerged in the sea side cliffs of Lyme Regis in a process of millions of years of erosion, sedimentation and more erosion, all in “deep time.” 

The proof of how our world worked and where it came from was right there in hands of this remarkable woman—Mary Anning.  We owe a lot to her, even though most of us have never even heard her name.  Most of us do know, however, a popular tongue twister poem written about her.  “She Sells Seashells by the Seashore” was inspired by Mary.