Mary Anning: the unlikeliest pioneer of palaeontology | Shop at the Museum

Mary Anning was born in 1799 to a family of poor dissenters. Despite living in a time when women were not readily recognized for their scientific contribution, Anning made an incredible discovery that led to her becoming one of the most important names in palaeontology. On the 216th anniversary of her birthday, the Museum’s online shop takes a look at her life and work and how it is still influencing scientists today.

Our gallery character 'Mary' regularly talks in front some of her own fossils

Our gallery character ‘Mary’ regularly talks in front some of her own fossils

Anning was not meant for the scientific field. She was the wrong sex, class, religion, and she was even almost killed when she was struck by lightning as a baby. However, she was clearly a born survivor as she and her brother Joseph were the only children to survive out of ten siblings. It was her cabinet-maker father, Richard, that taught Mary how to find and clean up the fossils they found on the Lyme Regis coast. They sold their ‘curiosities’ along the seafront, possibly inspiring the tongue twister, ‘She sells seashells on the seashore’.

In 1811, when she was just 10 years old, Mary and her brother were walking along the coastline when they found a skull protruding from the cliffs. Thinking at first that it may have been a crocodile, Mary spent months unearthing its full skeleton. It was later identified as an Icthyosaur or ‘fish lizard’.

Encourage your little dino hunter to explore their fossil finding skills with an excavation kit, a fossil sticker book, or a dino fossil replica

Encourage your little dino hunter to explore their fossil finding skills with an excavation kit, a fossil sticker book, or a dino fossil replica

The Icthyosaur fossil was sold to London’s Museum of Natural Curiosities and Mary carried on making her incredible discoveries. She discovered a Plesiosaur – the long-necked fossil that is thought to be what inspired the legend of the Loch Ness monster. She also discovered Pterodactylus, Ammonites and plenty of Gryphaea, the fossil known as ‘Devil’s toenails’ due to their ridged, short, claw-like appearance.

Mary knew more about geology and fossils than most people of the time. Despite this she was never allowed to publish the scientific descriptions of the specimens that she found and she was rarely credited with their discovery. The task of describing these creatures fell to the members of the newly formed geological society – all men.

This was at a time when women couldn’t vote or go to university. They would have no academic background whatsoever. It makes the fact that Anning was literate and an expert a truly remarkable thing. Wrongs were eventually righted when Mary was given an annual payment (i.e. annuity) for her work, raised by members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Geological Society.

Mary died of breast cancer at the age of 47. The Geological Society recorded her death. They started admitting women in 1904.

Book a free talk with Mary herself when she visits the Marine Fossils gallery at the Museum. Check to see when she’s next in the Fossil Marine Reptiles gallery here.

TrowelBlazing women

#TrowelToon by Jemima Williams for the TrowelBlazers website

#TrowelToon by Jemima Williams for the TrowelBlazers website

To see how Mary Anning continues to influence women in science today, you only need to look up TrowelBlazers, an organisation dedicated to highlighting the contributions of women to palaeontology, geology and archaeology. They honour the women who went before them as well as celebrating the achievements of women working in the field today. In an article from their site ‘Happy Birthday Mary Anning’ Dr Suzanne Pilaar Birch describes how important Anning really was:

A #RealFossilHunter, Lottie will be appearing in the Museum online shop very soon

A #RealFossilHunter, Lottie will be appearing in the Museum online shop very soon

“We could go on listing her discoveries all day – she was also the first to discover that ink could be made from belemite fossils and that copralites (then called bezoar stones) were actually fossilised faeces.”

Another great icon of the day was an Anning fan, although the TrowelBlazers aren’t sure of everything he has to say about her: Dickens wrote about her in 1865, though we disagree with his assertion that she was a dull child until being hit by lightning at a young age, thus somewhat dismissing her innate intelligence (and in fact she would have only been 1 year old with the date he provides), we like he also had this to say:

“The inscription under her memorial window commemorates her “usefulness in furthering the science of geology” (It was not a science when she began to discover, and so helped make it one) “and also her benevolence of heart and integrity of life.” (Dickens 1865: 63)

#RealFossilHunter

Fossil Hunter Lottie was developed in collaboration with the 4 scientists behind TrowelBlazers. Two of the TrowelBlazers team, Dr Tori Herridge and Dr Brenna Hassett, are also Museum scientists and they used their own experiences of fossil hunting, field work and research from the Museum to help make Fossil Hunter Lottie a true real-life inspiration.

There’s a long-standing adage that comes to mind when I’m asked about why TrowelBlazers worked so hard to help design Fossil Hunter Lottie: if you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” said Dr Brenna Hassett, who is a bioarchaeologist. “Lottie is a fantastic chance to show kids that anyone can get involved in science, and hopefully she will inspire future generations to get out there, start turning over rocks and develop a life long fascination with the natural world.”

“We wanted Fossil Hunter Lottie to have everything she needed to make her own fossil discoveries: a geological hammer, a hand lens and a trowel,” said Dr Tori Herridge, who is a palaeobiologist, “But we also wanted to make sure kids and adults know how to stay safe and be responsible when looking for fossils, so Fossil Hunter Lottie also comes handy tips and a special code for fossil collecting. If you’re lucky enough to find a fossil, sometimes the best thing to do is to try and let an expert know – you visit your local museum to ask for help, or you can use the Museum’s Identification forum. You never know, you could have made a really important scientific discovery!”

Fossil Hunter Lottie was also inspired by Mary Anning, and comes with child-friendly fact cards about the life of the pioneering fossil hunter. There are also mini-biographies of other women palaeontologists, including the Museum’s own palaeo pioneer Dorothea Bate.

Find out more about Mary Anning from our range of books and gifts for adults and kids on our online shop

Find out more about Mary Anning from our range of books and gifts for adults and kids on our online shop

Many thanks to the Museum’s Learning Engagement department, Jemima Williams and to Dr Tori Herridge, Dr Brenna Hassett, Dr Suzanne Pilaar Birch and the rest of the TrowelBlazers. For further reading about pioneering women palaeontologists visit their site here.