Mary Anning was an English fossil collector, dealer, and palaeontologist who became known around the world for finds she made in Jurassic marine rocks in the cliffs along the English Channel at Lyme Regis in Dorset, England.
Her findings contributed to changes in scientific thinking about prehistoric life and the history of the Earth.
Mary searched for fossils in the area’s Blue Lias and Charmouth Mudstone cliffs, particularly during the winter months when landslides exposed new fossils that had to be collected quickly before they were lost to the sea. Her discoveries included the first correctly identified ichthyosaur skeleton; the first two nearly complete plesiosaur skeletons; the first pterosaur skeleton located outside Germany; and various fish fossils. Her observations played a key role in the discovery of coprolites, known as bezoar stones at the time, were fossilised faeces, and she also discovered that belemnite fossils contained fossilised ink sacs like those of modern cephalopods.
As a Dissenter and a woman, Mary was not able to fully participate in the scientific community of 19th-century Britain, who were mostly Anglican gentlemen, and she struggled financially for much of her life. 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. However her friend, geologist Henry De la Beche, painted Duria Antiquior, the first widely circulated pictorial representation of a scene from prehistoric life derived from fossil reconstructions, based it largely on fossils she had found, and sold prints of it for her benefit.
Mary became well known in geological circles not only in Britain but in Europe and America, and was consulted on issues of anatomy as well as about collecting fossils, but 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 from breast cancer, Mary’s unusual life story attracted increasing interest. Charles Dickens wrote an article about Anning’s life in February 1865 in his literary magazine All the Year Round.
In 2010 the Royal Society included Mary Anning in a list of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science.
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