Mary Anning: The Princess of Paleontology

Who was Mary Anning?

Mary Anning was recognized as one of the top ten most influential British women folks who contributed to science in 2010 by the Royal Society. She has had several fossils named after her and was regarded as the Princess of paleontology by Ludwig Leichhardt, a German naturalist and explorer. Despite these honors, her name is almost unrecognizable. Why is that, and who is Mary Anning really?


Well, over 200 years before she was named by the Royal Society, Mary Anning was born to a poor family. She was born on May 21, 1799, in the small town of Lyme Regis, England. Her father, Richard Anning was a carpenter, and her mother was Mary Moore. Together the couple had ten children, but only Mary and her older brother Joseph survived, and Mary was regarded as a miracle. She was a gritty, energetic, determined, and intelligent young girl, which her parents actually credit to a lightning strike that killed four people that were under an elm tree with Mary. This strike miraculously spared baby Mary, and someone changed her from a sickly infant to one of immaculate health. The real reason for her high intelligence was likely the family church, a Congregational church that believed in educating everyone. This made it so that at the age of eight, when most girls would be practicing their sewing and cooking, Mary was taught to read and write at Sunday school.

Early Career

Mary got her start in Paleontology because of the town she was born and lived in. Lyme Regis sits on what is referred to as a Jurassic Coast, meaning that as the coastline gradually erodes, usually due to ocean tides and regular storms, fossils are exposed. Many of these fossils were about 200 million years old, meaning they were from the Jurassic era. Mary’s father actually sold these fossils to tourists for extra money, and naturally Mary and her brother, Joseph, often helped their father collect fossils.

After their father died from tuberculosis in November 1810, Mary and Joseph picked up the slack, hunting more and more fossils each day. The family got by with assistance from Overseers of the Poor, and by selling fossils, which led Joseph to discover an ichthyosaur skull near the end of 1811. After finding the skull, that was nearly larger than Mary, Mary decided to dig up the rest of the skeleton. The skeleton that Mary put together became the most complete example of an ichthyosaur found at the time, and was also used as the basis for the first ever scientific paper written about the ichthyosaur. This paper was written in 1814 by Everard Home, and although Mary’s family was paid, Mary and Joseph were never credited or even acknowledged. Science was an activity for gentlemen, and Annings were poor lower-class commercial dealers. Many scientists believed the only recognition they deserved was money. Sadly this was the first of many instances in which Mary would not be recognized for her scientific contributions.

In 1815, 14 year old Mary found the body of a dead woman while fossil hunting. This discovery of the woman, who was one of over 100 that had died when a sailing ship sank, deeply affected Mary. In fact, Mary was to the church every day to place fresh flowers on the body until the woman’s relatives claimed her corpse.

In 1819, Mary and Joseph’s ichthyosaur was on display in the British Museum in London, and by that time Mary was working alone because Joseph had taken up an apprenticeship. Unfortunately, in 1820, Mary didn’t have any luck finding fossils, and as the main provider for the family, this meant the family would go hungry. To make a little money, the family began selling their furniture, which is when Thomas Birch, a local naturalist and customer of Mary’s, decided to help her. Birch auctioned off his collection of fossils in London, and used the money to make the Anning’s family financially secure.

Later Career

As her career progressed, Anning began to take a more scientific approach to her work. She began reading scientific papers and learning about anatomy, which was difficult for her because these papers had very complicated language, language difficult to understand for a woman with little education. However, Mary persevered, and was so dedicated to her studies that she learned French so she could read the works of Georges Cuvier, an eminent naturalist and paleontologist. Mary also learned how naturalists made deductions from their observations, and how museums prepared specimens before displaying them. She became a master at this delicate work, and was excellent at removing fossilized bones from rock and reconstructing then.

In 1821, Mary found three 5 to 20 foot long ichthyosaur skeletons. In 1822 Henri de Blainville named the new science that utilized fossils to reveal Earth’s natural history, Paleontology. He later credited Mary in 1823, claiming that she had found nearly all the best Ichthyosauria skeletons.

In December of 1823, Mary made a revolutionary discovery, she found a complete Plesiosaurus skeleton. Annings was only age 24, and the discovery was so amazing that many Paleontologists, including Georges Cuvier, claimed it was fake. After seeing the skeleton at the London’s Geological Society, along with the largest audience to ever gather there, Cuvier went back on his word and declared his amazement. This led many people to travel long distances to meet Mary in Lyme Regis.

In 1828, Mary discovered the ink bag of an ancient 10-armed creature called a Belemnoidea. The ink in the bag had actually survived fossilization, which increased the number of visitors to Lyme Regis, and local artists actually began using the Belemnoidea ink to draw pictures of fossils. Mary also found the fossilized feces of an ichthyosaur that same year. She broke it open to reveal fish scales and bones. This gave scientists a valuable window into the diet of animals hundreds of millions of years ago. Later, just outside Germany, Anning discovered a flying reptile, called a pterosaur. This was the first discovery of the species Dimorphodon macronyx, which belongs to the Dimorphodon genus.

In 1829, Mary bested her 1823 findings by digging up an even more complete plesiosaur fossil. Later that year she discovered a Squaloraja, an extinct fish that was part shark, part ray, and baffled scientists. It wasn’t until 30 years later, when Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace theories of evolution and natural selection would be published, that these fossils would be truly understood.

The next year, in 1830, Mary Anning discovered a Plesiosaurus macrocephalus, which is regarded as her most complete and most beautiful discovery, and a cast of which was hung at the Natural History Museum in Paris. After this, geologist Henry De la Beche painted Duria Antiquior, one of the first popular portrayals of prehistoric life, and based the colorful and strange cast of animals off Mary’s discoveries. This painting allowed even those who weren’t paleontologists to imagine and speculate how modern life came from such strange prehistoric creatures. All the profits made from Duria Antiquior were given to Anning, and rightfully so.

Challenging Beliefs

Mary Anning was a revolutionary female scientist and devote Christian in a time when most people believed that the work was made by god in 4004 BC, as deduced by James Ussher. When Mary told her reverend, Reverend Henry Rawlins, that she had found fossils in different layers of Earth. This meant that the animals had existed during different eras, and Reverend Rawlins disapproved of this, refusing to speak about the topic more. Mary, however, didn’t let her faith get in the way of solid proof, perhaps because she was brought up in a dissenting church. Throughout her life Mary stayed a Christian, even despite the interaction with Reverend Rawlins. In fact, the book she read most frequently was the Bible.

Career Continued

In 1837, Ludwig Leichhardt, a German naturalist and explorer, met Anning, regarding her as an “energetic spinster.” He also dubbed her the Princess of Paleontology.

In 1838, the British Association for the Advancement of Science began paying Mary a small income from an annuity, because her work was so crucial. This was rare for a woman, especially one who had never published any scientific papers, but the Association felt it appropriate to recognize her importance.

After visiting Anning in Lyme Regis in 1834, Swiss paleontologist Louis Agassiz named two species of fish in her honor and to thank her for her assistance during his visit. The first fish, Acroduc anningiae, he named in 1841, and the second, Belenostomus anningiae, he named in 1844. After her death, many fossils were named in her namesake, including the the therapsid reptile genus Anningia, the bivalve mollusc genus Anningella, the plesiosaur genus Anningasaura, and the Ichthyosaurus anningae species.

Later life and death

Anning was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1845, and she fell very ill. When the Geological Society’s members heard of her ailment, they funded her treatment. Despite this, the townspeople had no clue that Anning was terminally ill, because she characteristically refused to complain about her plight. The townspeople went as far as to believe that she was drunk when she was merely taking Laudanum, an opiate based pain-killer that mimics drunkenness.

Anning died at the age of 47, on March 9th, 1847, in Lyme Regis. She was buried in the churchyard of Lyme Regis Parish Church, which now has a large stained glass window dedicated to her, and paid for by the Geological Society.




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Scout Balda

Scout Balda

Hi, I’m Scout! I’m a total language and STEM nerd! I have been writing fiction and science editorials for years, and I love to share what I learn with others!