Mary Anning and her Marine Fossils

Mary Anning

Mary Anning with her dog, Tray, painted before 1842

On May 21, 1799, British fossil collector, dealer, and palaeontologist Mary Anning was born. She became known around the world for important finds she made in Jurassic marine fossil beds in the cliffs along the English Channel at Lyme Regis in the county of Dorset in Southwest England. Her work contributed to fundamental changes in scientific thinking about prehistoric life and the history of the Earth.

Mary Anning was born in Dorset, England and her father had often taken Mary and her brother Joseph to his fossil-hunting trips from which he found pieces to sell to tourists. When her father passed away, Mary continued the fossil-finding trips near the sea. Her fossil hunt turned out especially fruitful when the tide was low, but still, collecting fossils remained a risky business. After a while, Mary Anning’s family established a good reputation as fossil hunters and it supported the family financially. Around 1817, the family met Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Birch, a fossil collector who later on became the supporter of the family. He attributed the major fossil discoveries to Mary Anning’s family and even sold some of his most valuable collections of fossils to those who would buy them to help the family. To this day, it is hard to trace, which of the found fossils can be really attributed to Mary Anning because museums usually credited the individuals who donated the fossils to them. For instance, she is credited with the discovery of the Ichthyosaurus fossils, but indeed it is believed that her brother had found the skull of the beast and she had contributed by finding the rest of it.

Unfortunately for Mary Anning, women were not officially allowed to attend the university and despite the fact that she had made so many wonderful discoveries, she was often not properly credited in the publications. However, this did not apply to everyone. The famous Swiss paleontologist Louis Agassiz visited Lyme Regis in 1834 and worked with Anning to obtain and study fish fossils found in the region.[4] He was so impressed by her and her friend Elizabeth Philpot that he wrote in his journal: “Miss Philpot and Mary Anning have been able to show me with utter certainty which are the icthyodorulites dorsal fins of sharks that correspond to different types.” He thanked both of them for their help in his book, Studies of Fossil Fish.

Drawing from an 1814 paper[21] by Everard Home showing the Ichthyosaurus platyodon skull found by Joseph Anning in 1811

Drawing from an 1814 paper[21] by Everard Home showing the Ichthyosaurus platyodon skull found by Joseph Anning in 1811

Another leading British geologist, Roderick Murchison, did some of his first field work in southwest England, including Lyme, accompanied by his wife, Charlotte. Murchison wrote that they decided Charlotte should stay behind in Lyme for a few weeks to “become a good practical fossilist, by working with the celebrated Mary Anning of that place…“. Charlotte and Anning became lifelong friends and correspondents.  Gideon Mantell, discoverer of the dinosaur Iguanodon, also visited her at her shop.[5] Anning’s correspondents included Charles Lyell, who wrote to her to ask her opinion on how the sea was affecting the coastal cliffs around Lyme, as well as Adam Sedgwick—one of her earliest customers—who taught geology at the University of Cambridge and who numbered Charles Darwin among his students.[6]

In 1847, Mary Anning died from breast cancer at the age of only 47. Charles Dickens wrote an article about her life in February 1865 in his literary magazine ‘All the Year Round‘ that emphasised the difficulties she had overcome, especially the scepticism of her fellow townspeople. He ended the article with: “The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.”

At yovisto academic video search, you can learn more about ‘What can fossils teach us?‘ in a lecture by Paul Sereno.

References and Further Reading:

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