Image: Fossil on Dorset beach

If you’ve ever been to Lyme Regis, you’ll have probably heard of Mary Anning – in fact, the museum you visit to find out more about the fossils and the Jurassic Coast is her former home. She’s one of Dorset’s best known exports, especially in the palaeontology field but how much do you know about her?

Quick facts:

Name: Mary Anning
Born: 21st May 1799, Lyme Regis, Dorset

Parents: Richard Anning and Mary Moore (known as Molly)

Mary was one of ten children, though eight of her siblings died before reaching adulthood. In fact, she had a very tragic and hard life – childhood mortality rate was very high and the family were lived in poverty, especially after the death of Richard Anning.

Though her name is well known now, at the time, despite being a pioneer in palaeontology, her social status and gender meant she never received the credit she deserved. Throughout her life, she risked injury and even death to hunt for fossils to discover more about dinosaurs and the Jurassic Coast itself.

Learn more about Mary:

Mary developed an interest in fossils through her father, Richard. A cabinetmaker and carpenter by trade, he supplemented his income by being an amateur fossil collector and would sell his finds to tourists.

Though now seen as a leading name in her field, Mary was mostly self taught. The Annings were religious dissenters, which means they were Protestants separated from the Church of England. Like many girls in her community, Mary attended a Congregationalist Sunday School where she learned to read and write. However, she taught herself geology and anatomy.

We already know that many of Mary’s siblings succumbed to childhood illnesses but did you know that Mary almost joined them after nearly being struck by lightning? At just 15 months old, she was being held by a neighbour, who along with two others were stood under a tree watching a horse show when lightning struck the tree. All three women died but Mary was saved – a doctor even declared it a miracle! Mary’s family said that prior to the lightning strike, she was a sickly baby but after became healthy, intelligent and lively.

Her father’s declining health was attributed to his fossil collecting. As a small child, Mary was introduced to fossil hunting by her father, something that was utterly unheard of for young girls. Richard Anning taught his daughter how to find and clean fossils, something that Mary thoroughly enjoyed. However, when she was 11, her father slipped and fell while out on the cliffs, his injuries exacerbated tuberculosis and he died shortly after. His death left the family in great debt, leading to Mary’s brother to take up work as an upholster and Mary continuing the fossil businesses.

Her first huge discovery was when she was just 12. Yes, 12!
A year after her father’s death, her brother discovered a strange looking fossil in the cliffs, so Mary headed out and searched for and dug out the outline of an ichthyosaur skeleton over several months. One of Mary’s customers, Elizabeth Philpot brought a scientist from London to take a look as many people thought it was a crocodile.
The skeleton was eventually named Ichthyosaurus, or fish lizard, and Mary was paid £23 for it. It was the first time that scientists could study dinosaur bones and was displayed, first at the British Museum and now at the Natural History Museum.

That wasn’t the only complete skeleton she found…
Mary was also the first person to discover a complete skeleton of a plesiosaurus. This time she was 22 and initially people thought it was a fake. After a debate at the Geological Society of London (women weren’t allowed into the society, so Mary could not be there herself) it was decided that it was in fact a real skeleton and it became the holotype that scientists still refer to today when researching plesiosaurs.

After the discovery of the plesiosaurus, Mary started to be taken more seriously and scientists would track her down to seek advice but because of attitudes towards women, she was not allowed to join the Geological Society of London and many of the scientists who sought her advice or bought her finds, didn’t credit her. It wasn’t just her gender that was against her – her station as a working class woman also led to her being overlooked. This didn’t stop her though, she saved up for a shop of her own and continued to search for and sell fossils.

These weren’t her only discoveries, she is also credited with finding a dimorphodon and for pioneering the study in fossilised poo. The dimorphodon turned out to be the first pterodactyl to be discovered outside of Germany – so quite the discovery. Despite this she continued to be shunned by the scientific community and her neighbours and remained poverty stricken for most of her life.

It wasn’t until after her death that she started to get the recognition she deserved. Sadly, Mary died at just 47 in 1847 of breast cancer. She had been unwell for quite some time and her medicine made her unstable on her feet which led to more disdain from locals.

Image: Ammonite lamp posts in Lyme Regis

Following her death, Henry De la Beche, president of the Geological Society of London and a friend of hers, broke with the society’s tradition of only commemorating members and read a eulogy to her at a meeting. Later she was made an honorary member and the society paid to have a special stained glass window installed in her local church dedicated to her memory.

These days, Mary is often featured in lists of hugely influential women in the scientific field and has rooms named after her at the National History Museum, exhibitions dedicated to her in museums and galleries around the country and even had a set of 50p coins minted with her name.

Now you know a bit more about Mary Anning, why not spend some time exploring the Jurassic Coast and see what discoveries you can make? Head to the Lyme Regis Museum, which stands on the site of her former family home, and find out all you need to know about fossil hunting on the Jurassic Coast.




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