Mary Anning was born in 1799 to a poor family in southern England. Her father, like many locals, sold fossils (such as ammonites and belemnites) to tourists, in addition to his trade as a cabinetmaker. When Anning was 12 years old, she and her 15 year old brother Joseph discovered the first ever complete skeleton of an ichthyosaur.
After their father died, and Joseph became an upholsterer, Mary took over the fossil collecting business.
Her other major discoveries are: the first two plesiosaur skeletons ever found and the first pterosaur skeleton found outside of Germany. These discoveries were important in their own right, and also helped the scientific community come to terms with extinction – a concept that drew a significant amount of controversy from the church.
Anning had little formal education, but she read many scientific papers and became so knowledgeable that Lady Harriet Silvester said of the (25 year old!) Anning:
“… professors and other clever men on the subject … all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom.”
When Anning was 27, she opened a store (“Anning’s Fossil Depot”) and was regularly visited by famous geologists and paleontologists. Anning guided these men on fossil hunting expeditions and they bought fossils from her shop.
It is clear from these visits (and her correspondence with other geologists) that Anning had some respect within the fossil-collecting community. However, as a working-class woman who practised ‘the wrong type’ of Christianity, she was excluded from the Geological Society of London, she was often paid very little, and most men who relied on her expertise did not credit her in their academic writings. She struggled financially for most of her life.
Shout out to Louis Agassiz, the only person to name anything after Anning during her lifetime. He also named a fish after Elizabeth Philpot and credited them both in his academic papers.
The tongue twister:
She sells seashells by the seashore
created by Terry Sullivan, was inspired by Mary Anning.