|Fig.1. Portrait of Mary Anning with her dog, Tray |
(Credit: NHM London, Public Domain)
In 1799, Mary Anning was born to Richard and Mary Anning of Lyme Regis, a quiet town on the southern tip of England. Despite a lack of formal schooling and financial struggles, Anning would become one of England's most prolific fossil collectors. Her finds - including the first two plesiosaur skeletons ever found, the first pterosaur skeleton found outside of Germany, and the first ichthyosaur to be recognized - wound up in private collections and museums around Europe, laying the foundation for the emerging fields of geology and paleontology.
The town of Lyme Regis was the lifelong home of Anning, as well as a country rich in fossils. Lyme Regis sits along 95 miles of coastline called the Jurassic Coast, which is famous for remnants of animals and plants that lived in the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods. With more than 180 million years of ancient life between those periods, this coast is a fantastic place for scientists to study the age of dinosaurs.
Unfortunately, Anning’s status as a poor woman without proper training excluded her from academic circles of the early 1800s. She learned collecting through her father, who routinely scoured the cliffs of Lyme Regis and sold his finds to supplement the family’s income. Anning eventually took over the family business, braving dangerous weather, landslides, and cliffs to seek out extraordinary bones.
Her discoveries came at an interesting time for academia. Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859) was not published until after her death, but the developing concepts of evolution and extinction were already points of contention within literature. Within wider academic and religious debates, Anning kept selling her fossils to private collections and museums.
Despite her skill in finding and identifying ancient bones - as well as her increasing fame among academics - few of her discoveries had appropriate attribution in literature. Anning's gender and social class shut her out of her contemporary academic fields and researchers today are still working to track down some of her fossils. Her striking finds became key pieces of evidence for extinction and deep time science and continue to contribute to modern understanding of the ancient world.
Fossil hunter Mary Anning celebrated in Lyme Regis. (2011, September 22). BBC News. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-dorset-14987193
Holmes, T. T. (2015, October 07). The Scrappy Female Paleontologist Whose Life Inspired a Tongue Twister. Atlas Obscura. Retrieved http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-scrappy-female-paleontologist-whose-life-inspired-the-tongue-twister
Most influential British women in the history of science selected by panel of female Fellow of the Royal Society and science historians. (2010, March 21). The Royal Society. Retrieved https://royalsociety.org/news/2010/influential-british-women/