She was an English fossil collector, dealer, and paleontologist who became known around the world for important finds she made in Jurassic marine fossil beds in the cliffs where she lived. Her findings would contribute to some of the most important changes to scientific thinking about prehistoric life and the history of the Earth.
Mary was born on May 21,1799 in Lyme Regis in Dorset, England to Richard Anning and Mary (Molly) Moore Anning. Her father was a cabinet maker who supplemented his income by mining the coastal cliff-side fossil beds near the town, and selling his finds to tourists. She would search for fossils in the area’s Blue Lias cliffs, particularly during the winter months when landslides exposed new fossils that had to be collected quickly before they were lost to the sea. She struggled financially for much of her life. Her family was poor, and her father would sadly die when she was eleven.
Her discoveries included the first ichthyosaur skeleton correctly identified; the first two complete plesiosaur skeletons found; the first pterosaur skeleton located outside Germany; and important fish fossils.
When geologist Henry De la Beche painted Duria Antiquior, the first widely circulated pictorial representation of a scene from prehistoric life derived from fossil reconstructions, he based it largely on fossils Anning had found, and sold prints of it for her benefit.
She was quite well known in geological circles in Britain, Europe, and America, and was consulted on issues of anatomy as well as about collecting fossils. As a woman during this time period, she was not eligible to join the Geological Society of London and she did not always receive full credit for her scientific contributions. She wrote a letter stating: “The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone.” The only scientific writing of hers published in her lifetime appeared in the Magazine of Natural History in 1839, an extract from a letter that Anning had written to the magazine’s editor questioning one of its claims.
She would pass away from breast cancer at the age of 47 on March 9, 1847. Her unusual story attracted increasing interest and an uncredited author in All the Year Round, edited by Charles Dickens, wrote of her in 1865 that “the carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.” Her fame rose again in the early 20th century and her story was the inspiration for the 1908 tongue-twister “She sells seashells on the seashore” by Terry Sullivan.
Swiss-American naturalist, Louis Agassiz would name two fossil fish species after her—Acrodus anningiae, and Belenostomus anningiae—and another after her friend Elizabeth Philpot. Other species, including the ostracod Cytherelloidea anningi, and two genera, the therapsid reptile genus Anningia, and the bivalve mollusc genus Anningella, were named in her honour. In 2010, one hundred and sixty-three years after her death, the Royal Society included Anning in a list of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science. In 2012, the plesiosaur genus Anningasaura was named for her, and the species Ichthyosaurus anningae was named for her in 2015