This week in science history: The unregarded palaeontologist is born


Mary Anning was a woman in a man’s England, her genius unrecognized in her day. Jeff Glorfeld reports.


An actor plays the role of Mary Anning at London's Natural History Museum.
An actor plays the role of Mary Anning at London's Natural History Museum.
Peter Jordan - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

Hugh Torrens, an esteemed British historian of geology and palaeontology, has called Mary Anning “the greatest fossilist the world ever knew”.

In its article on Mary Anning – born on May 21, 1799, in Lyme Regis, Dorset, England – the University of California Museum of Palaeontology queries how she could be “so obscure that even many paleontologists are not aware of her contribution?” It answers: “She was a woman in a man's England.”

Anning was raised in poverty in her birthplace, on Britain’s south coast, where the cliffs are rich in fossils from the seas of the Jurassic period. The family made a living selling them, and young Mary proved particularly adept.

Smithsonian.com describes the family’s first significant find, for which Mary is often credited, although that is not exactly correct: “(Mary’s) brother found what he thought was a crocodile head in 1811 and charged Mary with removing it from the rock and searching for the rest of the skeleton. She eventually dug out the skull and 60 vertebrae, selling them to a private collector for the handsome sum of £23. But it was no common crocodile. It was an Ichthyosaurus, a ‘fish-lizard’, and the first of many amazing finds.

“Mary’s brother would become an upholsterer, leaving fossil hunting to his sister. She would become one of the most prolific fossil hunters of the time, discovering more ichthyosaurs, along with long-necked plesiosaurs, a pterodactyl and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other fossils.”

Anning had little formal education but taught herself geology, palaeontology, anatomy and scientific illustration. The Smithsonian reports that she corresponded with, provided fossils for, and sometimes hunted with well-known scientists of the time, including geologist William Buckland and Richard Owen – who would coin the word “dinosaur” in 1842.

Her work, it has been remarked more than once, contributed greatly to the growing understanding of the Earth’s past, and to the development of evolutionary theory. During her own lifetime, however, she contributed primarily (and unwittingly) to the reputations of several other, male, palaeontologists.

In 2015, palaeontologist Dean Lomax from the University of Manchester in the UK described a newly identified ichthyosaur species, which he named Ichthyosaurus anningae in her honour.

Anning died on March 9, 1847.

Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
  1. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4027645?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
  2. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/mary-anning-an-amazing-fossil-hunter-60691902/
  3. https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-Buckland
  4. http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/history/owen.html
  5. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02724634.2014.903260?journalCode=ujvp20#.VOceHPl_u_8
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