Mary Anning was one of the first recognised fossil collectors. Mary was born into an extremely poor family in 1799 to Richard and Molly Anning in Lyme Regis which is part of the Jurassic coast and is especially rich in fossils: ammonites (then called ‘Ammon’s horn’) and belemnites (‘devil’s fingers’).
Mary’s father was a cabinetmaker and amateur fossil collector. When Mary was five or six, her father taught Mary how to spot, collect and clean the fossils on the beach. Like many women and girls at the time, Mary had little formal education. She was able to read, however, and taught herself geology and anatomy.
Out of her nine or ten siblings, only Mary and her older brother, Joseph, survived to adulthood and her father passed away when she was 12. Their mother encouraged Mary to support the family by selling her finds.
Just before he died Mary and her father found a fossilised skull. Mary painstakingly dug the outline of the rest of skeleton. Several months later a 5.2m skeleton had been revealed.
Georges Cuvier known as the father of palaeontology, had recently introduced the theory of extinction. Cuvier and the experts at the time, thought it was the remains of a crocodile that had simply migrated from faraway lands. A special meeting was scheduled at the Geological Society of London without Mary Anning whom was not invited. Cuvier himself disputed the find. After lengthy debate, Cuvier admitted to his mistake
It was eventually named Ichthyosaurus, or ‘fish lizard’. However, modern science shows it was neither fish nor lizard but a marine reptile that lived 201-194 million years ago.
During Mary’s teenage years, the war with Napoleon was still carrying on, limiting travel to Europe. At this time “sea bathing” was also becoming popular with the upper classes, so travellers flocked to seaside towns. Around this time fossil hunting was also becoming fashionable as it was perfect for fashionable Georgians seeking to add to their cabinets of curiosities.
In 1823 Mary Anning discovered the first complete skeleton of a Plesiosaurus (‘near to reptile’) By the standards of the time, the fossil was so strange there were rumours that the fossil was a fake.
In 1828 Mary uncovered a collection of bones with a never seen before features: a long tail and wings. Once again, news of her discovery travelled fast. Scientists from London to Paris theorised on this ‘unknown species of that most rare and curious of all reptiles’. What had been unearthed was the first pterosaur a Dimorphodon to be discovered outside Germany. We now know them as a Pterodactyl.
Despite her success and reputation for finding and identifying fossils, the scientific community was hesitant to recognise her work. Probably because of the attitudes of the time to the “uneducated” classes and the female gender. Even the Geological Society of London refused to admit Mary Anning. They did not admit any women at all until 1904.
Mary died from breast cancer in 1847 when only 47 years old and struggling financially despite her public fame and achievements.
In a strange quirk of social lore, she is more famed for being the source subject of the famous tongue twister.
She sells seashells on the seashore.
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure.
For if she sells seashells on the seashore
Then I’m sure she sells sea-shore shells.
Although, it is often said that Mary Anning was the inspiration for the tongue twister.’ It was originally a song, with words by Terry Sullivan and music by Harry Gifford, written in 1908. Although there is no definitive record of this.