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Mary Anning: The Girl Who Unearthed the First Complete Ichthyosaurus


Great Sea Dragons by Thomas Hawkins

Born in 1799 in Lyme Regis, a small town on the southern coast of England, Mary Anning became recognized as a pioneering paleontologist and fossil collector. The earliest record of a fossil discovery was about 1,500 years before she was born.

Her father, Richard Anning, was a cabinet maker and fossil collector. He taught her as well as her older brother, Joseph, how to look for and clean fossil specimens—a skill they later relied on to support the family. His death on November 5, 1810 left Molly Anning a widowed mother of two, pregnant with a third child.

The fossils—which were located in the cliffs along the beaches of what is now called the Jurassic Coast—were mostly ammonites, he would display them on a table in front of his shop.

At the age of 12, Mary Anning unearthed an unrecognizable creature… a 200 million year-old marine reptile. The first complete ichthyosaur fossil—Latin for “fish lizard”—as named by scientist Charles Koenig in 1817. Initially thought to be the skeleton of a crocodile, her find would later be acknowledged by the Geological Society in London. They refused to admit women until 1904.

The ichthyosaur 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.

She found another complete Ichthyosaur in 1821, two complete plesiosaurs (1823 and 1830) and the first pterodactyl found in Britain (1828), becoming important contributions to the science of paleontology. Unlike ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs, pterosaurs had wings and were believed to be the largest-ever flying animals.

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 them 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. Mary Anning is buried at St. Michael the Archangel Church in Lyme Regis.

Twelve years after her death, Charles Darwin’s book The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was published.

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