Mary Anning: Discoveries & Accomplishments

Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

Betsy teaches college physics, biology, and engineering and has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering

In the 1800s , there was a woman in England named Mary Anning who would discover many, many fossils that led to important discoveries in science. In this lesson, learn more about the life of Mary Anning and her fossil discoveries!

The Unknown Fossil Hunter

In the English village of Lyme Regis in the early 1800's, a young woman named Mary Anning discovered many important fossils around the cliffs overlooking the English channel. Although she was extremely successful at finding fossils, and many scientific papers were written based on her work, she never received much recognition for her many discoveries during her lifetime.

A portrait of Mary Anning with her rock hammer and loyal dog, Tray.
portrait of Mary Anning

Early Life

Mary Anning was born in 1799 in Lyme Regis, a small town on the southern coast of England. Her family was poor, so to make some extra money her father often took Mary and her brother Joseph out to the nearby Blue Lias cliffs to search for fossils that they could sell. This area was already known to contain many fossils from the Jurassic period, and fossil collectors would pay money for any new discoveries.

As a young child, Anning learned to read and write at Sunday school, but never received any formal education beyond that. Even this very limited education was more than many working class girls were provided at the time.

When Anning was just 11, her father died, leaving her mother destitute with two children to support. The family decided to continue trying to find fossils to sell, and it would soon become apparent that young Mary Anning had a lot more skill at locating fossils than her father ever had.

Discoveries

In 1811, when she was only 12 years old, Anning and her brother made their first big discovery when they dug up a complete Icthyosaurus skull. They sold it for 23 pounds to a local nobleman, Henry Hoste Henley. This was a lot of money for the Anning family!

Drawing of icthyosaurous skull found by Mary and Joseph Anning in 1811
Drawing of Icthyosaurus skull found by Mary and Joseph Anning in 1811

Over the next few years, Anning grew up and slowly took over the family fossil business. In 1823, she made her biggest discovery when she found the first complete Plesiosaurus that had ever been discovered. Just a few years later, she had saved enough money to open a small shop, which she called Anning's Fossil Depot, and scientists and collectors from all over the world visited her shop to buy the rare fossils that she was known to have.

A drawing of the plesiosaurus fossil found by Mary Anning in 1823
drawing of plesiosaur discovered by Mary Anning

In 1828, she discovered the first pterosaur fossil that had ever been found in the British Isles, and just a year later, the skeleton of a Squaloraja fish, which is now known to be a transitional form between sharks and rays.

While she was busy looking for new fossils, she also took the time to read everything she could about fossils and paleontology. Despite having very little education, she collected scientific papers and often copied them by hand, including complex illustrations and diagrams of extinct animals. Before long, she was one of the world's foremost experts on fossils, and because of her extensive knowledge, she could tell right away what type of fossils she had found and if they would be valuable or not.

Exclusion From the Scientific Community

As an uneducated working class woman in nineteenth century England, Mary Anning was shut out from the scientific establishment, despite all the important fossils she was finding. She was not allowed to join the Geological Society of London, whose members purchased most of the fossils she found. Her most important finds were often published in scientific papers, but she was not usually given any credit in these papers.

Throughout her life, she struggled to make enough money to survive while the scientists and collectors who bought her collected fossils gained a lot of recognition and money because of her discoveries. This was something that Mary always was angry about, but there was not much she could do about it at the time.

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