A tongue-twister used in a popular song in 1908 was said to have been inspired by the life and singular interests of Mary Anning. But who was she?
Mary Anning (1799-1847) was a British fossil collector and early paleontologist who dug the Jurassic marine fossil beds at Lyme Regis, Dorset, England, which date back some 195 million years. She worked the Blue Lias cliffs, particularly during the winter months when landslides exposed new fossils that had to be collected quickly before they were lost to the sea.
Mary Anning was instrumental in bringing the first specimen of an ichthyosaur – a giant marine reptile resembling a dolphin – to the attention of the scientific community in London. It was probably discovered sometime between 1809 and 1811, when Mary was only 10 to 12 years old. And while Mary did find most of the remains, her brother had discovered part of it twelve months earlier. In fact, the entire Anning family was involved in fossil hunting, but Mary’s skill and dedication led to many remarkable finds including several other ichthyosaur skeletons and the first plesiosaur.
Mary was born in 1799 to Richard and Mary Anning of Lyme Regis, on the south coast of the British Isles. Mary’s father was a cabinetmaker and occasional fossil collector, who died in 1810, leaving his family in debt and without a provider. He did, however, pass on his passion for fossil hunting to his wife and children, which turned out well for the fledgling field of paleontology.
The Anning family lived in poverty and anonymity selling fossils from Lyme Regis, until the early 1820s, when a professional fossil collector came to know the family and sympathized with their desperate financial situation. He decided to hold an auction to sell his fossil collection and donate the proceeds to the Anning family. He felt that the Annings should not live in such difficulty considering that they had “found almost all the fine things, which have been submitted to scientific investigation.”
Despite this recognition, the majority of Mary’s finds ended up in museums and personal collections without any credit being given to her. As time passed, Mary and her family were forgotten by the scientific community and most historians. She was a working class woman and many scientists of the day could not believe that she could posses such knowledge and skills.
Mary died in 1847 and is buried in the graveyard of the Church of St Michael the Archangel in Lyme Regis. In February 1865 Charles Dickens published a long article called “Mary Anning, the Fossil Finder” in his literary magazine All the Year Round. The author wrote, “Mary Anning was something more than a mere village celebrity, interesting to those who like to study character, and are fond of seeing good stubborn English perseverance make way even where there is nothing in its favour.”
The inscription under the church’s memorial window contributed by members of the Geological Society commemorates Mary’s “usefulness in furthering the science of geology.” The author of the article commented, “It was not a science when she began to discover, and so helped to make it one… The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.”