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Summary Article: Anning, Mary (1799-1847)
from The Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography

Place: Greece

Subject: biography, physics

English palaeontologist who found the first ichthyosaur skeleton, the first plesiosaur, and a pteradactyl. Her contributions to the new science of palaeontology were immense but were largely unrecognized because of her social position and her gender.

Anning was born in 1799 in Lyme Regis on the south coast of England, the daughter of a cabinetmaker who collected fossils in his spare time. She and her brother Joseph were the only surviving children of a family of ten. From her father she inherited a passion for fossil hunting along the cliffs of Lyme Regis, which were, and still are, rich in fossils from the Jurassic era. After her father died in 1810, the family was destitute and they eked out a living selling fossils. They opened a fossil shop in Lyme Regis, which proved to be a considerable tourist attraction. The tongue twister ‘she sells sea shells on the sea shore’ is thought to refer to Mary or her mother. The family's fossils were enthusiastically collected by museums and scientists and also bought for the large private collections of European nobles.

In the early 1820s the Annings attracted the interest of a professional fossil collector, Thomas Birch. He felt that a family who had found so many fine things should not be facing such financial difficulties and he sold his personal collection of fossils to support them. He attributed many discoveries to Mary and her family but it has been difficult for historians to trace many of her fossils, since they ended up in museums and personal collections without credit being given to their original discoverers.

Mary did gain brief recognition for discovering, with her brother, the first Ichthyosaurus specimen known to the London scientific community. Her brother discovered the head of a marine reptile on the shore between Lyme and Charmouth and a year later Mary (aged 12) carefully unearthed an entire ichthyosaur 5 m/17 ft long. She found several other fine ichthyosaur skeletons and also, most importantly, in 1828 the first plesiosaur. This find was endorsed by Georges Cuvier, the French anatomist, conferring a previously elusive legitimacy on the Annings as fossilists.

At a time when upper-class literate gentlemen scholars from London received all the credit for geological discoveries, it was hardly surprising that the unpublished achievements of a self-taught young woman from a deprived background went unnoticed. Although they eventually won the respect of contemporary scientists, lack of proper documentation means that the achievements of the Anning family have been lost to history. Mary Anning accumulated skills, experience, and knowledge and according to the diary of Lady Harriet Silvester who visited her in 1824, ‘... by reading and application she has arrived to that greater degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in the kingdom’.

In 1938 Mary received an annuity from the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The Geological Society of London collected a stipend for her and, in 1846, she was named the first honorary member of the new Dorset County Museum, a year before her death from breast cancer. The Geological Society (which did not admit women until 1904) published her obituary in their journal.

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

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