Women in Science: Mary Anning, Pioneering Paleontologist

Image credit ‘Mr. Grey’ in Crispin Tickell’s book ‘Mary Anning of Lyme Regis’ (1996)

Mary Anning came from quite disadvantaged beginnings, being born into a poor English family in 1799. Out of 10 children only she and her older brother survived into adulthood. Her father was a cabinet maker by profession and a keen fossil hunter on the side. He took Mary along for his collection trips and taught her how to clean and look after the fossils which he would often sell in his shop. When her father died of tuberculosis in 1810, Mary, still a child at the time, was encouraged by her mother to help the family financially by selling her fossils.

As a child Mary received very little formal education due to the lack of money in her family. She could read, but had to teach herself geology and anatomy.

Together with her brother, Mary discovered the first Ichthyosaur fossil (the remains of a marine reptile) when she was only 12 years old. After she had uncovered the 5.2 m long skeleton, scientists initially thought it was a crocodile. They debated the find for years.

You need to remember that at this time, the idea of extinction had just recently been introduced by Georges Cuvier. In addition, Charles Darwin did not publish his theory about evolution for another 48 years. People’s views on the creation of species was still largely based on the accounts of the Bible.

In 1823, still only aged 14, Mary was the first to discover a complete skeleton of a Plesiosaur (a ”sea dragon”), another marine reptile and even more controversial find. The fossil looked so strange and unlike any living animals, that it was rumoured to be a fake. Five years later followed the discovery of Pterodactylus, the remains of the first winged dinosaur found in Britain. In addition to uncovering many skeletons, Mary pioneered the study of coprolites, which is fossilized poo.

Mary was extremely proficient in uncovering, cleaning and identifying fossils. She continued to unearth countless remains. Many were sold to male scientists who profited from her work. Nevertheless, she was never recognized for it. Mary was not even mentioned in the papers about her groundbreaking Ichthyosaur find.

Mary died of breast cancer in 1847, aged only 47. Although she was never acknowledged formally for her discoveries, she left a great legacy of scientific discoveries. There are scientists who believe that her findings have in part contributed to the theory of evolution introduced by Charles Darwin over ten years after her death.






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