Mary Anning

Paleontologist Mary Anning was born in Lyme Regis, England in 1799. This region of England is part of what’s been nicknamed the “Jurassic Coast” because of the abundance of Jurassic-period fossils that have been discovered there – many of those by Anning.

Image: Portrait of Mary Anning with her dog Tray and the Golden Cap outcrop in the background, Natural History Museum, London. This painting was owned by her brother Joseph, and presented to the museum in 1935 by Miss Annette Anning.

Anning’s father collected fossils as a hobby and taught her this skill. After his early death when Mary was only 11, she, her brother, and her mother turned to fossil hunting to make money. Mary had to forgo much schooling in order to help out this family business.

But she learned from the fossils she collected – and she collected some great ones! Her finds included reptile fossils such as an Ichthyosaurus and the first Plesiosaurus – as well as fossil fish and other animals. And she pioneered the study of fossilized poop (technically termed coprolites).

Studying these fossils, she became an astute anatomist. Early on, fellow scientists were reluctant to accept that a poor, uneducated girl could have really made the findings she claimed – but she was able to gain their respect, and later in her career scientists of the day would come to her for advice. In 1838 she received an annuity from the British Association for the Advancement of Science; The Geological Society of London collected a stipend for her; and she was named the 1st Honorary Member of the Dorset County Museum. But, as a woman, she was excluded from scientific societies including the Geological Society (which published her obituary…)

Anning died from breast cancer in 1847 and she became largely forgotten – her contributions have been vastly underappreciated because she often didn’t get the recognition she deserved. This is largely due to her gender and lower socioeconomic status. Because she sold, rather than donated, most of the fossils she found, many museums didn’t attach her name to them.

In hopes of bringing Anning more attention, an 11-year old girl, Evie Swire, recently started a campaign to commission a statue of Mary Anning and you can check it out at maryanningrocks.co.uk.

Image: Portrait of Mary Anning with her dog Tray and the Golden Cap outcrop in the background, Natural History Museum, London. This painting was owned by her brother Joseph, and presented to the museum in 1935 by Miss Annette Anning.

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