Try to picture, if you can, England, 200 years ago: ‘mad’ King George III is on the throne and rules a growing British empire. If you are a child in a poor family then get ready to work. No school for you! Are you a girl? Then forget going to university, only men are allowed to do that.
This was the life that Mary Anning was born into in Lyme Regis in 1799. It didn’t seem someone like her would do anything remarkable…but Mary had other ideas.
Her father was a carpenter but spent a lot of time on the beach looking for fossils to sell for a bit of extra money. Mary and her brother Joseph often helped and in 1811 made an amazing discovery – the huge skull of an animal with big, sharp teeth. No one was really sure what it was because at that time people didn’t know very much about fossils or the history of the Earth.
The skull became one of the first fossils to ever be described by scientists and was named an ichthyosaur, which means ‘fish lizard’. She sold it to a local gent for £23, which was a decent return in those days!
Mary went on to make lots more amazing fossil discoveries as an adult, including pterosaurs (flying reptiles) and plesiosaurs as well as fish and other ichthyosaurs. She taught herself to read, studied geology and even wrote her own theories about the fossils she found.
She became well known in geological circles in Britain, Europe, and America, and was consulted on issues of anatomy as well as about collecting fossils. Nonetheless, as a woman, she was not eligible to join the Geological Society of London and she did not always receive full credit for her scientific contributions. Indeed, she wrote in a letter: “The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone.” The only scientific writing of hers published in her lifetime appeared in the Magazine of Natural History in 1839, an extract from a letter that Anning had written to the magazine’s editor questioning one of its claims.
After her death in 1847, her unusual life story attracted increasing interest. An uncredited author in All the Year Round, edited by Charles Dickens, wrote of her in 1865 that “the carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.” In 2010, one hundred and sixty-three years after her death, the Royal Society included Anning in a list of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science.