Mary Anning

Why is she famous?

Mary Anning was a famous fossil hunter and collector. She found and identified many pre-historic fossils from the time of the dinosaurs and sold them to make money for her family.

Anning was one of the earliest fossil hunters to identify these pre-historic fossils, and she shared her specimens and impressive knowledge about them with scientists at the time.

Anning was born and grew up in Lyme Regis, on the south coast of England. This is an area with lots of fossils.

Top 10 facts

  1. Although recognised by the science community, Anning was not admitted to The Geological Society – women were not allowed to join it until 1904. However, The Geological Society did record her death in 1847, demonstrating her importance.
  2. There is a memorial stained glass window to Anning in St Michael’s Parish Church in Lyme Regis.
  3. When a woman holding Anning at 15 months old was struck by lightning and killed, Anning survived.
  4. Anning was the first person to uncover a full Ichthyosaurus skeleton.
  5. Lyme Regis, where Mary lived, was once under water, 200 million years ago. This is why there are so many pre-historic fossils from underwater creatures found there.
  6. Anning often went fossil hunting after a storm because this usually caused bits of cliff to fall and for rocks to break open which made fossil hunting easier.
  7. Anning inspired the tongue twister ‘she sells sea shells on the seashore’.
  8. Anning’s Ichthyosaurus has been on display at the Natural History Museum in London.
  9. Anning discovered that if you grind up belemnites (squid-like creatures), the mixture can be turned into an ink for writing and drawing.
  10. Anning only ever left Lyme Regis once in her lifetime, to take a trip to London.

Timeline

  • 1799
    Mary Anning is born

  • 1810
    Anning’s father dies

  • 1810-1811
    Discovery of the first complete Ichthyosaur

  • 1823
    Discovery of Plesiosaurus

  • 1828
    Discovery of Pterodactylus

  • 1837
    Queen Victoria comes to the throne

  • 1847
    Mary dies of breast cancer, age 47

Did you know?

  • Mary Anning was not a trained scientist, but taught herself to read and write then read all about anatomy – her parents were too poor to send her to school. It was very unusual for women at this time to become ‘proper’ scientists.
  • Anning was one of nine children, but only she and her brother, Joseph, survived into adulthood.
  • A fossil is the remains of a plant or animal that has turned into rock over thousands of years. Fossils tend to be found in sedimentary rocks such as limestone.
  • Anning died of breast cancer in 1847 at the age of 47.
  • Anning was close friends with many important academic scientists such as Charles Lyell and Adam Sedgwick.
  • Some of Anning’s wealthier friends helped her out financially, sometimes giving her money to live off, so that she could continue her fossil collecting.
  • In 1878 a fossilised coral was named after Anning: Tricycloseris anningi.
  • Anning’s father was a carpenter and cabinet maker, but also had a passion for fossils – Anning most likely became interested in fossils thanks to her father.

Look through the gallery below and see if you can spot the following:

  • Blue plaque commemorating the house that Mary Anning was born in
  • Mary Anning stained glass window
  • Portrait of Mary Anning, 1841
  • Map showing the location of Lyme Regis
  • Letter and drawing about Mary Anning’s plesiosaur find, 1823
  • Lyme Regis around the time when Anning lived there
  • Plesiosaur found by Anning in the Natural History Museum
  • The tool used by Anning for extracting fossils
  • The Jurassic Coast in Dorest
  • An ammonite fossil in rock
  • Lots of ammnites!
  • Fossil lamp posts in Lyme Regis

Gallery

About

Mary Anning was born in 1799 in the Dorset town of Lyme Regis. Her dad was a keen fossil hunter and showed Mary and her brother, Joseph, how to find and collect fossils from the local beaches. This part of the coast is now known as the Jurassic Coast due to the high number of pre-historic fossils found there.

When Anning was 11 her dad died but she carried on looking for and collecting fossils in order to sell them. Anning’s family was very poor so they needed to earn as much money as possible from the sale of the fossils.

Anning didn’t attend school as she needed to earn money for the family, and it was too expensive at the time to attend. She taught herself how to read, write and draw, and read all about anatomy to help her understand the way the fossilised animals that she found were formed.

When she was 12, Anning’s brother spotted the fossilised skull of an Ichthyosaur. Anning uncovered it and discovered what turned out to be the first complete Ichthyosaur fossil to be found. This was an important discovery because it challenged the way scientists had thought the natural world had developed. In 1823 Anning discovered a Plesiosaurus and in 1828 she discovered a Pterodactylus.

Many scientists came to visit Anning because she was so knowledgeable about her finds and the many other pre-historic fossils she had uncovered. She corresponded regularly with scientists, including Adam Sedgewick, who taught geology at Cambridge University.

Most of the fossils Anning uncovered she sold in order to have an income. However, in 1838 she received an annual income from the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Geological Society of London, to fund her so that she could continue her valuable work on fossils.

Anning is often referred to as one of the first palaeontologists – scientists who study fossils – and her work started to change our understanding of how the world has evolved. Charles Darwin, a famous botanist who explained the theory of evolution (how plants and animals change and evolve of thousands of years), published his theory after Anning’s finds. He likely found her work useful in the development of his theories.

Anning died at the age of 47, and although she wasn’t allowed to be a member of the Geological Society (a scientific society for scientists who worked on rocks and the things found in them) because she was a woman, her death was noted by the society, highlighting her important contribution to science.

Words to know

Anatomy – the structure and features of an animal or plant.

Fossil – the remains or traces of an animals or plants that over tens of thousands of years have effectively turned into rock.

Ichthyosaur – a large marine mammal. Ichthyosaur means ‘fish lizard’.

Plesiosaurus – a large marine mammal. Plesiosaurus means ‘near lizard’.

Pterodactylus – a small flying reptile mammal. Pterodactylus means ‘winged finger’.

Dinosaur – a reptile that roamed the Earth millions of years ago. Dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago.

Palaeontologist – a scientist who studies fossils.

Limestone – a rock that is made up of the hard remains of sea creatures.

Chalk – a soft limestone that is made up of the hard remains of sea creatures.

Jurrassic – the time period from 205-140 million years ago. It was a time period that dinosaurs lived in.

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