Science & Technology

Mary Anning Was the Famed Female Fossil Hunter History Almost Forgot

When you think about the earliest fossil discoveries, you probably think of men with old-timey mustaches digging up rocks and chiseling out bones. While there were plenty of mustaches — or at least mutton chops — on display by paleontologists of the day, some of the first fossil specimens were in fact discovered by a 12-year-old girl named Mary Anning. She grew up to become one of the most important fossil hunters in history, but it took a century or two to finally give her the credit she deserved.

A Family Affair

Mary Anning was born on May 21, 1799 in Lyme Regis, a town on the southern coast of Great Britain. Mary's parents, Richard and Mary Anning, had as many as 10 children, but only Mary and her brother Joseph reached adulthood. Her father Richard was a cabinetmaker who made a meager living.

However, Richard was also an amateur fossil collector. You see, the cliffs of Lyme Regis near the Anning family home were, and still are, chock-full of ocean fossils from the Jurassic period (in fact, the area is now known as the Jurassic Coast). By the time she was six, Mary would regularly accompany her father on his outings, where he'd teach her how to search for fossils on the beach and clean them for display. Richard would often sell his finds in his shop.

But in 1810, when Mary was just 10 years old, her father died suddenly, leaving the family in debt and with no formal way to make money. They could, however, sell fossils, so mother Mary turned their fossil collecting hobby into a full-blown business. Though daughter Mary had little formal education — common for women in Lyme Regis at the time — she could read and was, therefore, able to teach herself geology and anatomy to help when it came to fossil identification.

In 1811 when Mary was 12 years old, her brother Joseph happened upon a peculiar fossilized skull. Curious if there was more to it, Mary returned to the source and found its fossilized body: the 17-foot (5.2-meter) long skeleton of what was surely a sea monster. As the concept of extinction was brand new to the scientific field at the time (and evolution wouldn't be a thing for another half-century), most scientists assumed it was just a crocodile that had ventured away from its natural habitat. But after years of study and debate, the specimen was finally dubbed "Ichthyosaurus," or "fish lizard." This marine reptile lived roughly 200 million years ago, and a 12-year-old girl assisted in its modern-day discovery.

"She Understands More of the Science Than Anyone"

By the mid-1820s, Mary had made a name for herself as the anatomist in the family and, as her brother had already chosen a different career, took over the family business. This was when she made another historic find: the complete skeleton of a Plesiosaurus (meaning "near to reptile"). But it didn't come easily — George Cuvier, known as the father of paleontology, disputed her claim. The Geological Society of London had to confer in a special meeting to finally agree on the true nature of the fossil — though, of course, Mary wasn't invited to attend.

Mary's plesiosaur discovery cemented the Anning family as legitimate "fossilists" in the eyes of the science community, and Mary continued to find, prepare, and identify more and more fossils. She discovered a fossil of a Dimorphodon, a winged reptile that was the first pterosaur ever to be discovered outside of Germany. She was even one of the first to study coprolites, also known as fossilized poop.

Mary wasn't just good at finding and preparing these fossils. As one well-to-do woman wrote after meeting her, "... the extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she has made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong ... by reading and application she has arrived to that degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom."

Male scientists bought her finds as fast as they could. But when they wrote up papers on their "discoveries," they didn't make any mention of the woman who actually found and identified the specimens. Part of this oversight was due to her social status as well as the fact that she was a woman.

Despite a lifetime of monumental discoveries, Mary Anning was still struggling financially when she died of breast cancer at age 47. But more than a hundred years later, it seems her time has finally come. Today, she's recognized as "the greatest fossilist the world ever knew," and has become the subject of several books and a Hollywood movie. (Some even say she's the source of a famous tongue twister, but that's almost surely false). The next time you see dinosaur bones in a museum, think about the poor 12-year-old girl searching for fossils on the beach — and think about the other underprivileged children the world might be keeping from greatness.

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Read a fictionalized account of Mary Anning in "Remarkable Creatures: A Novel" by Tracy Chevalier. The audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer May 17, 2019

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