Anning was born in 1799 in Lyme Regis on the south coast of England. She was the daughter of a carpenter who supplemented his income by mining the fossils that can be found in the nearby limestone cliffs and selling them to tourists.
Lyme Regis had become a popular resort and Anning’s father and other locals sold the fossils as curiosities with colourful names such as snake-stones (ammonites) and devil’s fingers (belemnites) but the fad for fossil collecting was to transform into science as their importance to biology and geology became better understood.
Anning’s father died when she was aged eleven and she and other members of her family continued with his fossil hunting, selling them from a stall they set up near the coach stop at a local inn. Their first important find came in 1911 when her brother Joseph discovered a four-foot ichthyosaur skull while Mary uncovered the rest of the body a few months later.
They sold their find for £23 (around £1,300 at today’s value) and it went on display in London generating considerable public interest and questioned the Biblical belief that the world was just a few thousand years old.
The Anning family fortunes depended upon such important finds but they could be few and far between. In 1820 they were on the verge of having to sell their furniture to make ends meet and were saved only when one of their wealthy patrons intervened by auctioning the fossil collection he had bought from them raising £400 (over £26,000 today) which he gave to the family.
He said that the sale was ‘for the benefit of the poor woman and her son and daughter at Lyme, who have in truth found almost all the fine things which have been submitted to scientific investigation’.
Anning continued to make important finds. In 1823 she found the first complete plesiosaurus and in 1828 the first British example of the flying reptiles known as pterosaurs, called a flying dragon when it was displayed at the British Museum. By 1826 she had saved enough money to buy a house and shop which she opened at Anning’s Fossil Depot which attracted collectors from across Europe and America.
Anning became a friend and colleague of many of the leading geologists of the day but her working-class origins and her gender excluded her from the wider scientific community and denied her the recognition that her contribution deserved. A friend wrote: ‘She says the world has used her ill … these men of learning have sucked her brains, and made a great deal of publishing works, of which she furnished the contents, while she derived none of the advantages.’
Fossil hunting could be dangerous work. It was mainly done in winter when storms caused the cliffs to crumble, uncovering more finds, and the risk was that cliffs could fall upon the hunter as nearly happened to Anning in 1833 when she narrowly avoided being buried by a landslide that killed her dog Tray.
Anning died of breast cancer in 1847 and a stained glass window in her memory was installed in the local church. The dedication reads: ‘This window is sacred to the memory of Mary Anning of this parish, who died 9 March AD 1847 and is erected by the vicar and some members of the Geological Society of London in commemoration of her usefulness in furthering the science of geology, as also of her benevolence of heart and integrity of life.’