Between a Rock and a Hard Place
It’s quite a testament to her life and achievements that, 223 years after her birth, we’re still talking about Mary Anning. She discovered and collected many fossils of iconic Jurassic reptiles, including the first Plesiosaurus known to science, and the first pterosaur species found in England. Her life is a tale of struggle against poverty and misogyny—particularly within the field of science—but it’s also a tale of an adventurous spirit, a curious mind, and an enduring love of knowledge and discovery. Because of her discoveries, we celebrate Mary Anning today, and likely for many centuries to come.
Born on May 21, 1799, to parents Molly and Richard, Mary was named after an older sister who perished in a house fire only five months before. Out of 10 children, only Mary and her brother Joseph survived to maturity, giving some context to the quality of life for that era, especially for the poor. Barely past her first birthday, she survived a freak accident at an outdoor equestrian demonstration. Elizabeth Haskins, a local nurse who occasionally helped Molly with the children, offered to take Mary to the event. However, that August afternoon turned deadly when a thunderstorm erupted over the hillside. Elizabeth, holding Mary and accompanied by two other women, ran for cover under a tree. The tree was hit by lightning and, tragically, the three women died. Miraculously, Mary survived.
Richard Anning was a cabinetmaker by trade. He also sold fossils he found along the shore to tourists who flocked to the Dorset coast. Rebelling against traditional gender roles, Mary shadowed her father on these treks along the beach, learning to spot fossils in the cliffs around Lyme Regis. She was a quick study. Finding interesting rocks and fossils and cleaning them up for sale became her passion. She loved spending time outside with her father, and he encouraged her enthusiasm. He even made a geology pick, fitted for her hand, so she could explore independently. Despite the prevailing Victorian attitude that educating women, especially lower-class women, was a waste of time, Mary learned to read at a progressive Sunday school, and taught herself all about anatomy and geology.
A rock star in the making
The geology of Lyme Regis’ iconic cliffs consists of the underlying Blue Lias Formation. The 199-million-year-old Jurassic rocks are named for the mix of blue-grey colored limestone and shale. They’re flat but extremely tilted towards the sea. The constant barrage of aggressive waves helped expose ancient marine fossils as much as it eroded and swept them away. This beautiful but treacherous landscape resulted in the death of Mary’s father in 1810. Richard came down with tuberculosis then suffered a bad fall over a cliff, dying at the age of 44. Mary was only 11. The loss of her father was incredibly difficult. She and her brother continued to follow in his footsteps, however, supporting their family by selling fossils.
Mary is lauded for finding the first ichthyosaur around the time of her father’s death, but the facts are a bit more complicated. Multiple accounts of her life, especially children’s books, focus on this one discovery at the age of 12 and merely summarize the rest of her arguably more scientifically significant discoveries as an adult. Her brother Joseph actually found the skull. Almost a year later, Mary found the torso of the animal including vertebrae, ribs, and the shoulder girdle. Not a complete skeleton, and technically not the first ichthyosaur. Vertebrae of this animal had been found as early as 1699, but they were misattributed to fish, and it wasn’t until the Anning specimen was found that it was recognized by science as a marine reptile. This was the first of many important scientific discoveries described, illustrated, and published by London scientists without acknowledging Mary Anning as the collector. That specimen is now at the Natural History Museum in London.
Perhaps even more astounding than the partial Ichthyosaurus, Mary also found a number of plesiosaurs that were undoubtedly holotypes—the first fossils of these marine reptiles known to science. In 1823, she uncovered a complete nine-foot-long Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus, which was described at a Geology Society meeting the following year. The fossil, sporting its unusually long neck of 35 vertebrae, was so odd to the scientists of the time, even famous naturalist Georges Cuvier thought it was a forgery when he first saw the illustrations.
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From passion to profession
In 1825, Mary took the lead in the family fossil business when Joseph became a full-time upholsterer. Since she never married, she worked tirelessly to support herself and her mother, satisfying her thirst for knowledge.
Mary went on to discover the first species of pterosaur found in England, Dimorphodon macronyx in 1828. A year later, she found her second complete Plesiosaurus, and an astounding 30-foot long ichthyosaur. Her last major scientific discovery was another holotype—a beautifully complete Plesiosaurus macrocephalus.
Sadly, Mary died of breast cancer at the age of 48 in 1847. Almost twenty years later, Charles Dickens wrote about her life. He argued that her discoveries helped transform geology into a “proper” science. It wasn’t until 1904 that the Geological Society, who refused to admit Anning, finally opened its membership to women.
Still inspiring after all these years
Women in science today, like myself, find great inspiration in Mary Anning’s story. Growing up as a dinosaur-obsessed kid, she was probably the first female scientist I knew of. The famous depictions of her chiseling away at a cliff face in her long Victorian dress and bonnet, dog by her side, was a rousing image for a young science enthusiast and avid reader.
There’s even more to Mary’s story than could fit here, and I encourage readers to dive more deeply into Anning’s legacy. I recommend The Fossil Hunter, by Shelley Emling. It's a wonderful biography, and the main reference source I used for this blog. Join me in following fellow paleontologist and collections manager Amy Atwater’s Instagram account aptly named Mary_Anning’s_Revenge. See a cast of that first Ichthyosaurus fossil Mary and her brother found on display—and used as the header image above—in the Field Museum’s temporary exhibition, Jurassic Oceans: Monsters of the Deep. Many of the fossils you’ll see are the same types of marine reptiles Mary found throughout her life combing the Lyme Regis cliffs and beaches.
It’s a joy she finally gets the credit she deserves in uncovering these incredible creatures from England’s ancient past.