You may have heard the popular, difficult-to-pronounce tongue twister “she sells seashells by the seashore,” which for best effect should be said aloud three times quickly. But what you probably didn’t know is that it is based on the life of one of the most remarkable yet seemingly overlooked women of European history: Mary Anning.
This incredible woman was born in England’s southern coastal town of Lyme Regis in 1799. They were tough times back then, and of her nine siblings only her brother Joseph survived with her into adulthood.
Even as a baby, moreover, it was obvious that Anning was destined to live an extraordinary life. In the year 1800, when she was only a year old, a deadly storm arrived on the coast. Before the group Anning was with could seek proper shelter, a lighting bolt struck and immediately killed three people.
Miraculously, the infant Anning survived – despite the rumor that one of those left dead was the woman holding her. And as Anning grew up, the townsfolk attributed her energetic and clever nature to the lightning strike.
Although Anning’s father Richard worked as a cabinetmaker, he spent his free time collecting and selling ancient fossils that he found along the cliffs overlooking the beach. Indeed, seafloor deposits of around 180 million years old make up the Jurassic cliffs of much of England’s coast. Even today, tourists continue to explore Lyme Regis for the opportunity to discover their own fossils from the region.
Curiously, these relics of a time long gone would come to play a central role in Anning’s life. It all started when her father began to take Anning along on his fossil-collecting trips.
Unfortunately for the family, disaster struck in 1810 when Anning’s father died at the age of 44, and the family was left in debt and poverty. Lacking the skills to continue the cabinetry business, Anning’s mother decided instead to pursue the fossil-selling hobby as a full-time money-making venture.
Don’t let the tongue-twister fool you, though: the little Anning family business was serious work. In the winter months, for example, the cliffs were prone to landslides. Indeed, in 1833 Anning lost her dog Tray to such a catastrophe. Even still, despite the danger, freshly exposed cliff-sides offered the best hunting grounds for fossils. And Anning learned much about the craft of being a “fossilist” during the next ten years, while her mother worked on selling her discoveries to keep the family afloat.
In 1811, meanwhile, the 12-year-old Anning made her first major discovery: the world’s first complete skeleton of an ichthyosaurus, a 200-million-year-old reptile that resembles modern-day dolphins. It was a big achievement for a lowborn girl with no formal education.
Thanks to Anning’s unquestionable ability, museums, scientists, and aristocrats all sought to purchase her curious fossil finds. However, even today many of Anning’s fossils in museums are under other names, as only donated relics at the time received proper recognition.
But her discoveries earned her fame regardless. In 1823, then, she added another world first to her name by unearthing a complete skeleton of a plesiosaurus – an 11 and a half foot reptile with a slender neck, small head and paddle-like limbs. This curious creature remains relevant to this very day as one of the contenders for the legend of the Loch Ness Monster.
In the mid 1820s, then, Anning took over the family business as her skills in collecting and analyzing fossils matured. Soon she purchased a home and opened her own fossil shop called “Anning’s Fossil Depot.” By this point, she was able to not only find and reconstruct fossils, but also write about them and even create detailed drawings. She had become, in fact, a truly professional paleontologist.
Anning’s success and story – that of a poor, young, uneducated woman doing the kind work that many male scientists at the time weren’t even qualified for – earned her quite the reputation. And in 1824 Lady Harriet Silvester, the widow of a powerful government official from London, visited Anning and was highly impressed.
“The extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she had made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong,” Silvester wrote in her diary. “She has arrived to that greater 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.”
Not surprisingly, this commendation is one of the only written mentions of Anning by her contemporaries. After all, the idea of a “poor, ignorant girl” from a small town being so knowledgeable about a complex field of science was more than a little unnerving in a society where women still could not yet vote, hold public office or attend university.
Indeed, Anning was snubbed by the highly educated geologists who questioned her findings and refused to admit her into the Geological Society of London. They even took credit for her discoveries and ideas for much of her lifetime.
One of her friends in the field was Henry De la Beche, who using Anning’s specimen drawings for inspiration famously painted an image of what life must’ve been like on the prehistoric English coast. He then gave Anning the profits from sales of the printed picture.
But Anning’s discoveries rocked the fields of paleontology and geology, despite whatever many of the men of her time might have claimed. For example, by 1824 Anning had identified that the round and oblong-shaped rocks then known as bezoar stones, and now known as coprolites, were really fossilized feces. By the 1840s, moreover, Anning was so well respected that she was awarded three separate annuities for her contributions to science.
Sadly, the pioneering paleontologist succumbed to breast cancer at the young age of 47. Respectfully, the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society published the news of her death – an honor from a scientific establishment that wouldn’t even allow women to join until 1904.
Today, people continue to follow in Anning’s footsteps whenever they look for fossils on the beaches of Lyme Regis, part of the so-called Jurassic Coast of southern England. And Anning’s discoveries did not only contribute to the field of paleontology, but also played a significant role in developing the idea that species could go extinct – challenging Christian dogma that the Earth was only 6,000 years old. Plus, the Royal Society recently recognized Anning as one of Britain’s top ten most influential women scientists in history: a fitting tribute to the work that she did.