Mary Anning

Mary Anning has been called by some as the greatest fossillist of the world. She had made her mark in the field of collecting fossils by making several contributions to unearthing Jurassic fossil beds which were marine in nature in Dorset, specifically in Lyme Regis. She is credited as the discoverer of the first ever specimen of Ichthyosaurus that was acknowledged by no less than the Geological Society in London. A famous fossil hunter, Mary Anning’s discoveries were some of the most important geological pieces of all time.


Early Life and Personal Background

Her birthplace was in Dorset, England, specifically Lyme Regis. Her father named Richard had been a cabinetmaker. He made ends meet by mining the nearby coastal cliff fossil beds and sold what he found to tourists. He got married to Mary Moore also known as “Molly” and they lived in house which was built on the town’s bridge. Richard and Mary together had ten children but only Joseph and Mary were able to reach adulthood. The family had to face a sad event when Richard died in the year 1810, and had left the family in debt and with no provider. Despite this, he had been able to pass on his skills on finding fossils to his family and had been especially useful for Mary Anning.

Mary was named after a sister who had previously died in a fire and there had even been local lores about her earliest years. When she was only 15 months young, there was an event which included a neighbor named Elizabeth Haskings and two other ladies underneath an elm tree. The women had been watching an equestrian demonstration and Elizabeth Haskings held the young Mary Anning. Lighting then struck the tree and had killed everyone underneath it except Mary Anning. Her survival had been miraculous and apart from being part of the local lore, it had even been attributed as the cause of lively personality and intelligence when she grew up.

Her father, when he was still alive, had taken both Mary and Joseph to his fossil-hunting trips from which he found pieces to sell to tourists. Their family had always lived in poverty and there had even been accounts that they lived so close to the sea at one point that their own home got flooded and they had to climb up to the room upstairs just so they would not drown. There are mixed accounts of the life of Mary Anning, but what hold true are those which are attested by the fossil findings which show more than just the history of their previous lives but the hardships of Mary Anning as well.

When her father died, she had continued the fossil-finding trips near the sea. She would walk the area when the tide was low. Even for enthusiasts, collecting fossils was a risky business, but the teen Mary Anning had braved the challenges and risks that had come along with it.

How Fossil Collecting Helped the Family of Mary Anning

Some may see this as a dire job which would help no one prosper. But things changed when the family had established a good reputation as fossil hunters and were even able to make it as a business which supported them. In the year 1817, the family had the chance to meet Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Birch. He was a well-off fossil collector who later on became the supporter of the Anning family. He had sympathized with the situation of the family and in order to help them, he even arranged to put up his own fossil collections for sale and gave the proceeds to the family.

Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Birch had attributed the major fossil discoveries to Mary Anning’s family, and he sold even his finest collections of fossils to those who would buy them to help the family. He believed that Mary’s family should not have to experience such poverty because they had been the ones who found the finer discoveries in the area.

It is true that Mary Anning had been credited with the discovery of the Ichthyosaurus fossils, but it was not she alone who did this. Her brother had found the skull of the beast and she had contributed by finding the rest of it. Because of her and her family’s skills in hunting fossils, European nobles, and collectors of what were then known as “curiosities” sought the fossil finds of the family. Because museums usually credited the individuals who donated the fossils to them, a lot of the discoveries made by Mary Anning were very hard to trace. The most famous ones had been the 1821 discovery of the Ichthyosaurus, and the first ever Plesiosaurus which was unearthed in 1823.

Mary Anning in the Scientific Community

She was born in a time when women weren’t allowed to attend the university, and despite being able to discover several great finds, she had not been properly credited by some of the wealthy fossillists who had used the information they had gotten from her finds and made publications from. Anna Pinney was a young woman who at times accompanied Anning. She had written about this experience of Mary Anning that, the word had used her ill and these men from the scientific community had not given her the credit which was rightfully hers.

Despite that experience however, there had been those who credited her work such as the paleontologist Louis Agassiz who visited her hometown in 1834. He had thanked Mary Anning and a friend of hers named Elizabeth Philpot in his book called “Studies of Fossil Fish.” Roderik Murchinson had been one of those she had fond recollections of, and she had even stayed with his family when she had a chance to visit London in the year 1829.

On the 9th of March in 1847, Mary Anning died from having breast cancer. She was only 47 at the time. Even the famous Charles Dickens wrote about the sufferings and triumphs of Mary. The article he had published in his magazine called “All the Year Round” ended with the lines “The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.”