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Mary Anning, an Amazing Fossil Hunter

Though she had little formal education, Mary taught herself geology, paleontology, anatomy and scientific illustration, and her finds were key to the development of the theory of evolution

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Portrait of Mary Anning (via wikimedia commons)

We don’t usually give much thought to who discovered a fossil. Museums rarely include much more information than species name and the state or country where the remains were found.

The exception, in several museums in England at least, is fossils found by Mary Anning in the early 19th century. And two new books, one biography and one novel, bring her story to life.

Mary was born in 1799 in Lyme Regis, on the southern coast of England. Her father was a cabinetmaker who preferred to hunt for fossils, but neither occupation brought the family much money. When he died in 1810, he left behind a pregnant wife, two children and a large debt. Mary and her brother took to fossil hunting for survival.

Her brother found what he thought was a crocodile head in 1811 and charged Mary with removing it from the rock and searching for the rest of the skeleton. (Mary often gets credit for the discovery, though that is not technically correct.) She eventually dug out the skull and 60 vertebrae, selling them to a private collector for the handsome sum of £23. But it was no common crocodile. It was an Ichthyosaurus, a “fish-lizard,” and the first of many amazing finds.

A plesiosaur, Rhomaleosaurus cramptoni, found by Mary Anning and on display in London's Natural History Museum (via wikimedia commons)

Mary’s brother would become an upholsterer, leaving fossil hunting to his sister. She would become one of the most prolific fossil hunters of the time, discovering more ichthyosaurs along with long-necked plesiosaurs, a pterodactyl and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other fossils.

Though she had little formal education, Mary taught herself geology, paleontology, anatomy and scientific illustration. She corresponded with, provided fossils for and sometimes hunted with well-known scientists of the time, such as William Buckland and Richard Owen (who would coin the word “dinosaur” in 1842). Her finds were key to the reconstruction of Earth’s past and the development of the theory of evolution (as well as the development of several scientists’ careers).

But Mary never published a scientific paper of her own—men wrote up her finds. Even if she had written one, it was unlikely that it would have been published because she was female. Mary was never wealthy. Until a friend convinced the British Association for the Advancement of Science to provide her with an annuity of £25 per year, she was always one accident away from total destitution. And though the Geological Society marked her 1847 death from breast cancer a year later in a president’s address (a rare honor), the organization didn’t admit its first female member until 1904. Even today many of her finds will never be associated with her name, the records lost long ago.

Mary is now emerging from history. The Natural History Museum in London, for instance, has made her and her finds the main attraction of their Fossil Marine Reptiles gallery. The Lyme Regis Museum stands on the site of her birth. She is the subject of several children’s books. And the Geological Society has placed one of her ichthyosaur skulls and a portrait of her and her dog in their front reception hall.

A new biography, The Fossil Hunter by journalist Shelley Emling, tells Mary’s story in detail for the first time. The book is detailed and well researched, drawing on Mary’s own diaries when possible. And the story is captivating enough to forgive Emling for the slightly annoying habit of reconstructing her subject's hypothetical thoughts and feelings.

Mary truly comes alive, though, in a novel published today: Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier, author of Girl With a Pearl Earring. Chevalier imagines Mary’s life into her twenties, told through both her own point of view and that of a friend, the older Elizabeth Philpot. There are conceivable explanations for mysteries of Mary’s life, such as why she never married and how one collector comes to sell all of his fossils and give the proceeds to Mary and her family. Chevalier knows how to tell a good tale, and her story of Mary is definitely that.

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About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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