Mary Anning: History's Pioneer of Palaeontology

Get to know the life and work of this pioneering palaeontologist and fossil collector

A portrait of pioneering fossil hunter Mary Anning (1799-1847)The Natural History Museum

Mary Anning was born in 1799 in Lyme Regis, Dorset. This area in southwest England is now known as the Jurassic Coast, and discoveries are still being made to this day. Mary was a pioneering palaeontologist and fossil collector. Her lifetime was a constellation of firsts.

While Mary was growing up, George III was king, Britain was at war with Napoleon's army and Jane Austen wrote Sense and Sensibility.

The Anning family were religious dissenters and very poor. Out of nine or ten children, only Mary and her older brother Joseph survived to adulthood.

This is her trusty sidekick, Tray.

Jurassic ammonites by The Natural History MuseumThe Natural History Museum

Mary's father, Richard, was a cabinetmaker and amateur fossil collector. He taught her how to look for and clean the fossils they would find together on the beach. He often displayed and sold them from his shop.

After Richard died suddenly in 1810, Mary's mother, Molly, encouraged her to help pay off the family's debts by selling her finds.

Icthyosaur (1811) by Mary Anning/Joseph AnningThe Natural History Museum

Around 1811, when Mary was 12, her brother found this fossilised skull. Mary then searched for and painstakingly dug the outline of its 5.2-metre-long skeleton.

Scientists thought this was a crocodile. At the time most people assumed that unearthed, unrecognisable creatures had simply migrated to far-off lands.

Georges Cuvier, known as the 'father of palaeontology', had only recently introduced the theory of extinction. Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species was not for another 48 years.

A drawing of a plesiosaur by Mary AnningThe Natural History Museum

In 1823 Mary was the first to discover the complete skeleton of a Plesiosaurus, meaning 'near to reptile'. So strange was the specimen and so quickly had the news spread that soon there were rumours that the fossil was a fake.

Georges Cuvier himself disputed the find. A special meeting was scheduled at the Geological Society of London, though Mary was not invited. After lengthy debate, Cuvier admitted to his mistake.

Sketches of skulls by Mary AnningThe Natural History Museum

Like many women and girls in Lyme Regis at the time, Mary had little formal education. She was able to read, however, and taught herself geology and anatomy. She also met and corresponded with famous scientists and collectors.

Sketches of teeth by Mary AnningThe Natural History Museum

Despite her growing reputation for finding and identifying fossils, the scientific community was hesitant to recognise her work.

Male scientists often did not credit her discoveries in their scientific papers, even when writing about her groundbreaking Ichthyosaur find.

The Geological Society of London refused to admit her - in fact, they didn't admit women until 1904.

Dimorphodon macronyxThe Natural History Museum

In 1828 Mary uncovered a strange jumble of bones, this time with a long tail and wings. Once again, news of her discovery travelled fast. Scientists from London to Paris theorised on this 'unknown species of that most rare and curious of all reptiles'.

What she found were the first remains attributed to a Dimorphodon. It was the first pterosaur ever discovered outside Germany. The name Pterodactyl was coined later.

Unlike ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs, pterosaurs had wings and are believed to be the largest-ever flying animals.

The Zoological gallery of the British MuseumThe Natural History Museum

Mary continued to unearth fossil after fossil. She still sold her many finds, which increasingly fuelled public interest in geology and palaeontology. People flocked to fossil displays around the country - even major museums struggled to keep up with demand.

Duria Antiquior - A More Ancient Dorset by Sir Henry Thomas De la BecheThe Natural History Museum

Her discoveries inspired famous geologist - and childhood friend - Henry De la Beche to paint 'Duria Antiquior - A More Ancient Dorset' in 1830. He sold prints to raise money for Mary, who was still struggling to make ends meet.

Duria Antiquior - complete with ichthyosaur, plesiosaur and pterosaur - is the very first pictorial representation of prehistoric life based on fossil evidence.

This art form is now known as paleoart. It helps people understand a little about life on Earth millions of years ago.

Mary died from breast cancer in 1847. She was buried here, in Lyme Regis. She was only 47 years old, and still in financial strain despite a lifetime of extraordinary scientific discoveries.

A specimen of a young ichthyosaurThe Natural History Museum

Today the Natural History Museum in London showcases several of Mary Anning's spectacular finds, including her ichthyosaur, plesiosaur and pterosaur. Much like they did two centuries ago, her fossils continue to captivate visitors from around the world.

Scientists at the Jurassic CoastThe Natural History Museum

Mary's legacy lives on along the rugged Jurassic Coast - now a UNESCO World Heritage Site - where scientists, amateurs and adventurous children alike gather year-round to hunt for the next big find.

Credits: Story

All rights reserved © the Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

Words by Marie-Claire Eylott.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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