Fossil collector and dealer, discoverer of the ichthyosaur
Mary Anning was born in 1799 in Dorset. From an early age, she loved to help her father collect fossil ‘curios’ from the beaches near her home, which her struggling family sold to tourists. She was described as a daring explorer of the rocks and cliffs by the ocean, going to any lengths to find these mysterious fossils of shells, teeth, ammonites and belemnites. When Anning was eleven, her father died and her family was left destitute.
While her brother was apprenticed to an upholsterer, Anning continued to exploit her talent for finding the best fossils. A good fossil find, like a perfect ammonite, could help her and her family eat for a week.
When Anning was twelve, her brother Joseph found the head of a giant, fossilized creature in the sand. It had huge eye sockets, a long, pointed jaw, and sharp interlocking teeth. Months later, Mary Anning began to find more fossil fragments nearby. Anning gathered some men to help dig the fossils out. It was an entire connected skeleton. She sold the skeleton for 23 pounds, enough to feed her family for six months.
Mary was visited by many well-to-do fossil collectors and early geologists of the day. Her name was well-known, and papers were written about ‘Mary’s creature,’ which came to be called the ichthyosaur, or ‘fish-lizard.’ Mary worked to educate herself by copying over papers written about her creature. In a time when the concept of extinction was considered somewhat heretical, as well as confusing, the ichthyosaur clearly demonstrated that some animals had ceased to exist, and had been buried in succeeding layers of rock.
Anning would go on to discover other important dinosaurs and assist with the development of the new science of paleontology and fossil interpretation. The the ostracod Cytherelloidea anningi was named after her, as well as two genera, Anningia and Anningella. In the last fifteen years, Anning’s place as an important contributor to paleontology in Britain has been increasingly recognized and formalized. In 2009, she was included, by a panel of experts commissioned by the Royal Society, in a list of the ten most influential British women in the history of science.
Sources: “Terrible Lizard” by Deborah Cadbury; “Mary Anning,” Wikipedia.