Mary Anning was born in Lyme Regis, Dorset, in 1799 and spent her entire life in this small seaside town on England’s south coast. During her childhood, the Napoleonic wars curtailed travel to Europe and tourists flocked to the seaside instead. Here, fossil hunting became a popular pastime for fashionable Georgians looking to add to their cabinets of curiosities, and a new cottage industry sprang up.
Anning’s father Richard had a large family to support and, in order to supplement his modest income as a carpenter, he set up a curiosity table outside their home selling fossils to tourists. These objects were a source of great fascination, but no one knew what they were. Petrified in the rocks on the shore were strange shapes that resembled backbones of giant creatures, along with enormous pointed teeth, which led to speculation that they belonged to crocodiles or alligators. At the time, absolute faith in the word of the Bible was commonplace and people believed these were the remains of creatures that had died during the Great Flood. Anning took a keen interest in helping her father and amongst the curiosities they discovered were ‘snake stones’ (ammonites), ‘devil fingers’ (belemnites) and ‘verteberries’ (vertebrae).
A Hazardous Occupation
Fossil hunting was a dangerous business; there was always the risk of being caught by the tide, as well as rockfalls, and sometimes Anning and her father had to climb the slippery rock face to escape the rising waves. In 1810, disaster struck as Mary’s father fell on the cliffs and later died from his injuries. In 1833, Anning also had her own brush with death, almost losing her life during a landslide that killed her beloved dog Tray. The loss of Mary’s father left the family destitute and the resulting hardship meant that of all the Anning children, only Mary and her older brother Joseph survived. While Joseph was apprenticed to an upholsterer, Mary continued to search for fossils, something at which she had become highly skilled.
Anning was still aged only around 12 or 13 when she found the first articulated skeleton of an ichthyosaur, a type of marine reptile that once roamed Jurassic seas. In 1823, she found another sea lizard, unearthing the first complete plesiosaur skeleton, which initially baffled scientists because of its abnormally long neck. In 1828, she discovered the first pterosaur skeleton in England. Named Dimorphodon by the palaeontologist Richard Owen, millions of years ago this winged reptile once filled coastal skies. Combing the beaches in all weathers, this series of astonishing discoveries make Anning the greatest fossil hunter of the Victorian era.
A New Understanding
Anning was careful to look inside the fossils she uncovered and often noticed the remains of fish, complete with scales and bones. The palaeontologist William Buckland confirmed that these were coprolites – the fossilised faeces of animals that lived millions of years ago. Coprolites are important because scientists can use them to identify the diet and behaviours of prehistoric animals, as well as the types of plants that grew in their habitat at that time.
As a working-class woman, Anning lacked a formal education, but acquired the skills needed to collect and prepare fossils. She had taught herself anatomy and became quite an expert in the subject of marine palaeontology. However, because of her gender and class, Anning did not write or publish any academic papers. Instead, she contributed drawings and imparted her knowledge to many notable geologists, but her role in unearthing so many historically important specimens, while advancing scientific understanding, was rarely acknowledged.
Despite her endless commitment to fossil hunting, Anning struggled to make a living selling fossils from her shop. Her financial situation wasn’t helped when she entrusted her savings to a private investor in the late 1830s who promptly disappeared. Despite her best efforts, she was unable to retrieve them. Buckland tried to raise money on her behalf and by 1838, Mary had a secured income of £25.00 a year – enough to provide her with regular food even if she never found another fossil.
Devoted to Science
Tragically, life didn’t get any easier for Anning and in the early 1840s, she was struck down by breast cancer. When news of her illness reached the Geological Society in London, Buckland again tried to raise money on her behalf and successfully secured a fund for her. Towards the end of her life, despite being confined to her shop much of the time, Anning remained devoted to science, copying out articles on the planets and geology. She died on 9 March 1847 and was buried in the Lyme churchyard by the sea. Today, her legacy lives on in the area, now known as the Jurassic Coast, where scientists and amateurs still gather in search of their next big find.