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Mary Anning

1799 - 1847

image of mary-anning

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Mary Anning was born in Lyme Regis, on the south coast of England. By the age of 5 or 6, she was assisting her father in finding fossils along their town’s shoreline and became accomplished at excavating and polishing them. She sold the fossils she found to provide much needed funds for her family. By age 27, she had saved enough to buy a home, in which she established a fossil shop.

When she was 10, Mary’s older brother found a large skull on the beach, and a year later, Mary discovered the rest of the body. It was the first complete skeleton of what would become known as an ichthyosaur. At the time, long before the term “dinosaur” was coined, scientists were baffled by this reptile/fish-like creature.  

Through the course of her life, Mary discovered 34 new fish species and fossilized dung (known as “coprolites”) from ichthyosaurs. Her noted finds included Plesiosaurus giganteus, pterosaur (Dimorphodon), Squaloraja polyspondyla, and Plesiosaurus macrocephalus. Although she had only 3 years of formal education, she became adept at illustrating her finds and she taught herself anatomy by dissecting sea creatures. 

Leading scientists from Europe and America, such as William Buckland, Charles Lyell, Roderick Murchison, Richard Owen, and Gideon Mantell came to visit her and communicated with her, but rarely did she receive credit for her finds. As a member of the working class as well as being a woman, she was not able to pursue a higher education in any scientific fields or attend any of the lectures given by the Geological Society, even though leading scientists in the field discussed her finds there. She was never considered to be more than an amateur.

Mary Anning died of breast cancer in 1847, at the age of 47. She never married.