Mary Anning The Ichthyosaurus Fossil Hunter Woman

Mary Anning,the fossil woman and her loyal Terrier "Tray"
Mary Anning,the fossil woman and her loyal Terrier "Tray"

Mary Anning "The Fossil Woman" (1799-1847)

Some considered Mary Anning the greatest fossil hunter

Throughout history females had to continually struggle to earn equality and respect against their male counterparts.Though just as deserving,they are often swept under the rug of history.One such female,Mary Anning was the foremost contributor to the study of Paleontology during her time.

Due to the lack of appropriate certification of her skill and prejudicial attitudes,many scientist in early nineteenth century England could not believe that a young woman from the lower social class with no formal education could possess the knowledge and skill she seem to display.

Even a female admirer,Lady Harriet Sivester wrote in her diary "...the extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she has made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong. It is certainly a wonderful instance of divine favor - that this poor, ignorant girl should be so blessed, for by reading and application she has arrived to that degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject..." Although high in praise,"divine favor" was invoked to explain how such a woman could possibly be so well informed and knowledgeable in a field considered a "man's domain"

Mary Anning's fossil extractor
Mary Anning's fossil extractor

Mary Anning's fossil work and contribution to science also attracted many admirers in an age when "feminism" was not in vogue.

The English paleontologist Edward Pigeon commended and gave her high praises. Expressing that "In the arduous and zealous exertions of this female fossilist in her laborious and sometimes dangerous pursuit, It is to her almost exclusively that our scientific countrymen, whose names have been already mentioned, owe the materials on which their labours and their fame are grounded, nor, we are persuaded, will they be unwilling to admit that they are indebted for some portion of their merited reputation to the labours of Mary Anning."

Mary Anning's fossil discoveries credited to others

In spite of the recognition of the scientific community,the majority of Mary Anning's fossil finds ended up in museums and private collections without credit given to her as the discoverer.A recent perusal of museum records showed that only one specimen's discovery was attributed to her; a fossil at Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
Although wealthy collectors often had fossils named after them,no British fossil was named for Mary Anning until 1878 :a coral named "Tricycloseris anningi". And no British fossil reptile have been named in commemoration of Anning notwithstanding their numerous discovery by her.

Today relatively little is known about the "Fossil Woman"but her contribution to science is slowly being recognized.

Ichthyosaurus
Ichthyosaurus
Ichthyosaurus fossil
Ichthyosaurus fossil

Mary Anning's Ichthyosaur

Creatures that belong to the same evolutionary period tend to adopt roughly the same forms.The Ichthyousaur"fish lizard" may have evolved from the same ancestors of the Eurhinodelphis,the "prehistoric Dolphin" But despite the resemblance they are not mammals or fish but reptiles.


Mary Anning's fossl discoveries

Her work contributed to the fundamental changes in scientific thinking in the early 19th century about the history of the earth and how life existed in prehistoric times.

Mary Anning's five major discoveries are the Ichthyosaurus (1812),the first complete skeleton unearthed marine,crocodile-like reptile that she and her brother found when she was 12 years old. A Plesiosaurus giganteus(1823),The first British Dimorphodon macronyx (1828),Squaloraja polyspondyla(1829), Plesiosaurus macrocephalus(1830)

Ichthyosaur fossil head at the Museum of Natural History,London
Ichthyosaur fossil head at the Museum of Natural History,London
Ammonites,predatory squid like creatures some over 3 feet across
Ammonites,predatory squid like creatures some over 3 feet across

Mary Anning also unearthed countless other small creatures including crustacea and mollusca. When described in succession, her true contribution to the scientific community is even more far reaching.

Plesiosaurus
Plesiosaurus
Embedded Plesiosaurus Fossil
Embedded Plesiosaurus Fossil

Her discoveries challenge the church's biblical account of the creation. Many viewing the fossils displayed in museums were shock into disbelief as religious assumptions were reassess.Charles Darwin use her finds as factual evidence in his book "On the origin of species", his evolution theory by natural selection.

Dimorphodon macronyx "flying dragon"
Dimorphodon macronyx "flying dragon"

Interestingly,Mary's faith never wavered.She remain with the church until her untimely death. The dangerous nature of her work where a mudslide once buried and killed her pet dog "Tray" only reinforced it.

Squaloraja polyspondyla fossil with characteristics between sharks and rays
Squaloraja polyspondyla fossil with characteristics between sharks and rays
Old photo of Broad street,Lyme Regis,Dorset,UK
Old photo of Broad street,Lyme Regis,Dorset,UK

Early life

Mary Anning's family was involve in fossil hunting to augment the family income

Mary Anning was born in 1799 in Lyme Regis, a village on the fossil rich coast of southern Great Britain now popularly known as "The Jurassic Coast". Her parents were Richard and Mary(molly).Of their ten children,only Mary and her brother Joseph survive to adulthood.

Richard was a cabinetmaker who occasionally collected fossils then considered "curiousities" which he sold to wealthy tourist to augment the family income Her father was the influence in her love of collecting fossils.At a young age,Mary and her brother Joseph would accompany their father in his search for "curiousities" on the rock formations and beaches of the coastal shores.

Turning point

Mary's father died in 1810 when she was 11.Leaving the family destitute and in debt. In order to avoid relying heavily on charity,her mother(Moly) continued the business of selling to fossil collectors.

It was only natural that Mary's love of fossils and the dire needs of the family decided her future career in the risky business of fossil hunting.The unpredictable coastal winds and shifty sea cliff with the ever presence of rock and mudslides made it a dangerous occupation.

fossil hunting on the dangerous Blue Lias Cliffs at Lyme Regis
fossil hunting on the dangerous Blue Lias Cliffs at Lyme Regis

"She sells sea shells on the seashore"

The familiar tongue twisting rhyme is base on Mary Anning.

In what may be an apocryphal story,On her first beach combing excursion after her father's death, Mary found an ammonite fossil which a tourist took a fancy for and paid her half a crown.

Success through perseverance

An anecdote is told of an incident when she was 15 months old. Mary was being held by a neighbor under an elm tree when lighting struck.The neighbor and two other girls nearby were killed but incredibly Mary survived. People in her community thereafter attributed her curiosity and intelligence to her miraculous survival.

But it was more to diligent efforts and perseverance that she acquired her extensive knowledge.Without formal education,Mary taught herself the science she needed to understand her fossils. She would borrow scientific papers and sat for hours and copied them painstakingly word for word.Mary Anning would read all the scientific literature she could get hold of.She also dissected modern animals in order to better understand her fossils.She dedicated her life to her love of fossils.

Sea cliffs on the "Jurassic coast",Lyme Regis
Sea cliffs on the "Jurassic coast",Lyme Regis

The real "Jurassic park"

Without taking anything away from Mary Anning's fossil hunting skills,Lyme Regis was an opportune place for a fossil hunter.The coastal sedimentation was incredibly rich in fossils.

The oldest rocks found in the cliffs around Lyme Regis are part of a Blue Lias formation on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset. It is where mary anning's Ichthyosaur was discovered.

Lyme Regis not only attracted the wealthy tourist who spent their summer vacation in town but also prominent figures in the field of geology and other related science.Her association with them undoubtedly help Mary's career,making her discoveries widely available to the scientific community.

Among them were Sir Henry De La Beche, a childhood and lifelong friend who was to become the first director of the British Geological Survey,William Conybeare,a key figure in the development of the Geological Society of London who was stingy in his acknowledgement of Anning's abilities and the Rev.William Buckland, the first Professor of Geology at Oxford who was also rumored of having an affair with Anning,although Mary did maintain her friendship with his children.

"Duria Antiquior"or ancient Dorset, base on the fossil discoveries of Mary Anning
"Duria Antiquior"or ancient Dorset, base on the fossil discoveries of Mary Anning

Financial difficulties

Although never destitute, Mary faced financial difficulties many times in her life.Friends and admirers would occasionally come to her aid.

Among them were Lt. Col. Thomas James Birch who,when the Anning family were desperately selling their furniture to make rent,auctioned off the fossils he had previously bought from them and gave the Annings the proceeds.

Henry De la Beche commission George Johann Scharf to make a lithographic print of "Duria Antiquior".The painting portrayed prehistoric life in Dorset.Copies were sold to wealthy friends and geologist and the proceeds given to Mary.

Mary Anning's independent nature

Because of her independent nature and non conformity to the norms of female demeanor,she was describe as having an abrasive nature."A prim,pedantic vinegar-looking,thin female,shrewd and rather satirical in her conversation".

But other accounts showed a woman of strong and energetic character. In 1826 at the age of 27 Mary had saved enough money to buy a home with a glass front to sell her fossils from, she called it "Anning's Fossil Depot". Collectors from as far as America came to buy fossils from her shop.

Many eminent scientist of the time visited and corresponded with her. She gave generously of her time and knowledge.Enjoyed debating and sharing information among their company.

Female companionship

An intelligent but easily irritable middle-class spinster befriended Mary Anning.Despite the 20 years age difference and their background. Mary found in Elizabeth Philpot an unlikely patron and protector.Elizabeth was also a fossil collector,amateur palaeontologist and artist in her own right.

They would often be seen together under unstable cliffs or wading in knee deep waters at low tides searching for specimens dislodge from the rocks.Their untypical conduct in the age of prudish Victorian morals cause much tongue wagging and gossip in town.

Philpot defended Anning from the men who visited Mary to pick her brains of her knowledge of fossils, only to write scientific papers and crediting it as their own. Mary once said to Elizabeth,"The world has used me so unkindly,I fear it has made me suspicious of all man-kind."

St Michael parish church,Lyme Regis
St Michael parish church,Lyme Regis

Untimely death and recognition

Mary Anning died from breast cancer at aged 47. In the last years of her life, she begun to take large quantities of laudanum, an opiate derivative to numb the pain although she continued working until the end.

Nine years before her death she was given an annuity of 25 pounds by the British government.Though the government’s offer appeared generous, it was criticized by some. John Murray wrote, “The pitiable pension doled out by the niggard hand of the Government…confines its honors and rewards to military prowess or naval heroism, and contrives to forget the imperishable triumphs of mind in science, literature and the arts…”

A stipend was eventually raised by members of the British Association for the advancement of Science and Geological Society of London after she was diagnosed with breast cancer..She was also made the first honorary member of the new Dorset County Museum.

 Stained glass window in St.Michael Parish church in Lyme Regis commemorating the life of Mary Anning
Stained glass window in St.Michael Parish church in Lyme Regis commemorating the life of Mary Anning

For all the difficulties she endured, Mary Anning became a bit of a celebrity in her lifetime.She had manage to win the respect and recognition of the scientific and lay public. By the time she died, she had become so well known that Charles Dickens's journal All the Year Round reported "the carpenter's daughter has won a name for herself, and deserved to win it."

In 2010 Mary Anning was included in the Royal Society's list of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science.

Mary Anning "The fossil woman" and the greatest fossil hunter of her time was finally given the recognition she deserve.

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Comments 10 comments

jamaicaroxas43 5 years ago

Information need not be boring when written in a story telling format.Mary Anning's life is very interesting.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

Good Hub!


SilentReed profile image

SilentReed 5 years ago from Philippines Author

jamaicaroxas43 ~ Thank you. Biographies are always interesting.


SilentReed profile image

SilentReed 5 years ago from Philippines Author

WillStarr ~ Thank's.Glad you like it :)


PenMePretty 5 years ago from Franklin

Awesome. Useful. Interesting. I voted! This is exciting!

One of my favorite things is the study of Archeology. It holds a certain mysterious field. Where I lived in KY on a large farm, we kids would roam a specific area on the huge hill sides, looking for fossils. There we would find awesome flat rocks with dark black tiny flowers arrayed like masterful artwork. The flowers were embedding all the way through the rocks. We were told they were ghostly. I loved them! I would get extra credit in school for the flowered ghostly rocks.


always exploring profile image

always exploring 5 years ago from Southern Illinois

This is very interesting.I'm glad she was finally recognized. Thank you.


SilentReed profile image

SilentReed 5 years ago from Philippines Author

PenMePretty ~ Like in Archeology the more I dug up the story of Mary Anning the more it arouse my interest. She is an amazing person whose life I find inspiring.I'm happy to be able to share it.

I'm also trying to picture you as a kid looking for fossils in the hill sides.must have been a lot of bruised knees and sun burns :)


SilentReed profile image

SilentReed 5 years ago from Philippines Author

always exploring ~ Thank you for exploring my hub :) What we take for granted today,Back in Mary Anning's time she must have struggled doubly hard to be accepted and win the respect of her peers.


nighthag profile image

nighthag 5 years ago from Australia

A wonderful interesting read about a fascinating woman thank you


SilentReed profile image

SilentReed 5 years ago from Philippines Author

nighhag ~ Yes she was. It was by accident that I stumbled upon her story as I was researching another topic.One cannot but feel admiration for her courage both against the dangerous cliffs at Lyme Regis and the prejudicial attitude towards women of the English victorian era.

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