Mary Anning (1799–1847) is known in many circles as the greatest fossil hunter of all time, and this year marks 200 years since her most famous discovery: the first complete skeleton of a dinosaur-era sea monster known as an ichthyosaur. Anning found the 200-million-year-old, fish-shaped beast, and many others, eroding out of spectacular seaside cliffs near her hometown of Lyme Regis, along England’s Jurassic Coast.
To commemorate the anniversary, and Anning’s lifetime of discovery, Anning’s ichthyosaur has come back home. On loan from Natural History Museum in London, the bones are now on display at the Lyme Regis Museum, where several Mary Anning Day events are happening this weekend. In Cambridge, the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences is celebrating as well, with a new display of the paleontologist’s personal letters and collected specimens.
To best appreciate Anning’s contributions to science, consider some history. In 1811 not much was going on to challenge the Biblical stories of creation and the flood. Certainly no one was thinking about evolution; Charles Darwin was still in diapers. James Hutton, the father of modern geology, had already theorized on the abyss of geologic time, but the idea would not become popular for another 20 years. No one yet appreciated the ancient world of extinct creatures that Anning’s discoveries would represent; indeed, it would be another three decades before Sir Richard Owen would coin the word “dinosaur.”
Yet starting at age 12, Mary Anning stretched the minds of her contemporaries like never before. In 1811, after months of painstaking effort, she had finally unearthed the entire skeleton of a strange animal she and her brother had spotted in the crumbling cliffs near their home. The unknown creature, now known as an ichthyosaur, had the sharp teeth of a crocodile, but its huge, bulbous eye made it like no animal still living today.
Anning made other sensational discoveries over the years: more ichthyosaur skeletons, a flying pterosaur, and hundreds of spiral-shelled ammonites, among others. Of particular scientific significance was her discovery in 1823 of a complete skeleton of the long-necked Plesiosaurus, another top predator of the ancient seas.
Anning’s finds jolted the scientific community into looking for other explanations for the changes they observed in the natural world. But her personal motives were also pragmatic. Fossil collecting was a family business; Anning needed to sell fossils to support her struggling family. In this letter from July 27, 1835, she plies her latest finds to University of Cambridge geologist Adam Sedgwick:
"In answer to your forward of the 24th I beg to say that the price of the Ichthyosaurus 4 feet and half is £50 and the one 3 feet and half is £20 and I think without fear of contradiction I may say that they are the most perfect yet discovered."
Getting the attention of Sedgwick and other prominent male scientists, including Henry De La Beche and William Buckland, was a particularly significant feat for a self-educated, working-class woman of her time. But clues about her life indicate she had the personality for it:
"She glories in being afraid of no one and in saying everything she pleases," noted Anning's friend Anna Maria Pinney in a journal entry from 1831.
It was exactly this chutzpah that inspired author Tracy Chevalier to write Remarkable Creatures, a fictionalized account of Mary Anning's rather difficult life and friendships with other paleontologists:
“I was interested that, though female and working class, Mary managed to work with the middle class male scientists of the day. She was prickly and independent and eccentric. Plus, she was struck by lightning as a baby and survived. Discovering her felt like my own jolt of lightning, and I knew I had to write about her.”
Mary Anning died at age 47 of breast cancer. By then she was a celebrity recognized by the likes of Charles Dickens, and her beloved ichthyosaurs were the recognized rulers of the Jurassic seas.
A 1919 painting of ichthyosaurs by Heinrich Harder. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Painting of Mary Anning made after her death in 1847, based on a portrait from 1842. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Mary Anning’s red wax seal, on a letter to Adam Sedgwick in 1835, is the spiraling shape of an ammonite shell, a common dinosaur-era fossil that has come to emblemize Anning’s hometown of Lyme Regis (LEFT). Courtesy Sedgwick Museum of Geology. Ammonite fossil found near Lyme Regis (RIGHT). By Sarah Simpson
Lyme Regis, England, where Mary Anning spent her life scouring the gray cliffs in the distance. Note the spiraling ammonite shape of the light poles along the beach. By Sarah Simpson