Monday, August 31, 2015

Mary Anning, Paleontologist

Written by Elisabeth Pendergrass

May 21,1799 - March 9, 1847
Lyme Regis, Dorset, England

S.T.E.A.M. Powers

  • Paleontologist
  • Fossil collector
  • Discovered the first first correctly-identified ichthyosaur skeleton and the first two plesiosaur skeletons

Her Story

Mary Anning was an extraordinary woman who shone in a male-dominated world. Her discoveries were classified as some of the most significant geological finds of all time, yet her name is not a common household name. Brought up in poverty and anonymity, Mary Anning shook the scientific community like no one ever thought a woman could.

Lyme Regis, England
Mary Anning was born in Dorset, England on the cliffs of Lyme Regis to Richard and Mary Anning. She was the oldest of ten children, but unfortunately, only she and her brother, Joseph, survived to adulthood. Their father was a carpenter and the rest of the family sold fossils they found along the beach and in the cliffs to keep an income. Her father died when Mary was eleven, which pushed the family into more debt. It was not until Lt.-Col Thomas Birch, a professional fossil collector, got to know the Anning family that he decided to sell his fossil collection and donate the proceeds to the Anning family. He felt that they should not live in poverty when their findings had already contributed so much to the scientific community.

Mary Anning's rock hammer, via
The Discovery to Fame 
In 1811, when Mary Anning was only eleven, she and her brother Joseph found the first complete Ichthyosaur - a huge discovery! This discovery, along with many of her marine reptiles findings, opened possibilities to investigate prehistoric life and gain a better understanding of how life and the world began. In 1823 when she found the Long-Necked Plesiosaurus, the sea dragon. When it was validated by a member of the geological society the Anning family became legitimate and respectable in the fossil community. While running the family fossil business, she continued to make remarkable discoveries like the unearthing of the Pterodactylus, also known as the “Flying-Dragon”.

Letter and drawing from Mary Anning announcing the discovery of a fossil animal now known as
Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus, 26 December 1823

A Woman to Remember 
Although very little is known about the life of Mary Anning, she is one of the most significant female scientists in history. At age 36, she was awarded an annual pay from the British association for the Advancement of Science and Geological Society of London. She was also the first honorary member of the Dorset County Museum. Towards the end of her life, she opened up a shop to sell fossils, stones and shells. Sadly, she passed away at the age of 47 after a long battle with breast cancer. Due to the circumstances and time she was born in, Mary Anning’s work was often placed in collections and museums without any accreditation, which caused her family to fade from public mind and the scientific community. Anna Pinney, a young writer who would occasionally accompany Mary, wrote about the negligence and mistreatment that Mary would receive from the scientific community in relation to her gender.

Mary was the first to document the Dimorphodon, a flying pterosaur. via

Bones, Bones, and Bones
Contrary to popular belief, Mary Anning proved that our roots and our upbringing do not define us or our future. Many scientists within the geological community were surprised by Mary Anning’s skill and knowledge since she had come from such a poor background. Mary Anning’s discoveries opened up a world of possibilities for the scientific community. By finding these fossils, she provided evidence that challenged the biblical view of creation and sparked the exploration into the origin of life on earth. She was a woman who did not let her background, her gender or societal limitations stop her from becoming one of the most significant scientists in the geological community.
 “The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.”-Charles Dickens
Google honored Mary Anning with her own "doodle" on May 21, 2014

Learn More about Mary Anning 


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