Mary Anning: Discoverer of the First Complete Ichthyosaurus

Mary Anning Fossil Hunter

Born in 1799, Mary Anning was a pioneering paleontologist and fossil collector. Her father, Richard Anning, was a cabinet maker and amateur fossil collector. He taught her as well as her brother, Joseph, how to look for and clean fossil specimens — a skill they later relied on to support the family.

At the age of 12, she'd managed to dig up a 200 million year-old marine reptile — the first complete Ichthyosaurus, or 'fish lizard' — skeleton to be acknowledged by the Geological Society in London. They refused to admit women until 1904.

The marine reptile was bought from Anning for £23 and then purchased by the British Museum at auction in 1819. It can still be seen at the Natural History Museum today, writes BBC.

In the 1820's, Mary took over the family fossil business. Lacking formal schooling, she was still able to read, write, draw, and reconstruct fossil skeletons.

During much of 19th century Europe, the majority of her finds ended up in museums and personal collections without credit being given to her as the discoverer of the fossils. Male geologists, who frequently bought the fossils, would sometimes publish her findings as their own work. Scientists doubted the validity of her finds, and few were willing to take her seriously until French anatomist Georges Cuvier declared her plesiosaur specimen to be genuine. While she was not trained as a scientist, her finds changed science.

In 1847, she died at the age of 47 from breast cancer, still in financial strain despite her scientific discoveries. She is buried at St. Michael the Archangel Church in Lyme Regis.

Read more at the Natural History Museum.

"Her history is incomplete and contradictory. Some accounts of her life have been fictionalized, and her childhood discoveries have been mythologized."


H/T Atlas Obscura

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