Lyme Regis' Mary Anning
Mary was a fossil collector, dealer and palaeontologist whose pioneering work led to some of the greatest finds, making her famous around the world.
Over 200 years since she was born, Mary Anning is starting to gain the recognition she deserves. In recent years, the Natural History Museum has hailed Mary Anning as 'the unsung hero of fossil discovery’.
Mary Anning’s early years
Mary Anning was born in Lyme Regis in 1799. Her father Richard Anning was a carpenter and her mother, also called Mary Anning. During her childhood Mary and her father, an amateur fossil collector, would go out fossil hunting regularly along the coast. They would bring back their finds, clean and polish them, then display and sell the fossils to tourists from her father’s shop.
After her father’s sudden death in 1810, Mary and her family were destitute and were under constant threat of the workhouse. It was during this time that selling fossils became the family's only source of income.
In 1811 Mary's older brother Joseph Anning discovered the skull of what we now know as an ichthyosaur. It was four feet in length - very sizeable. About a year later Mary found the rest of it and became quite a national sensation.
The Victorians were mostly creationists - that is they believed that the world around them was exactly the same as it had been since after the creation story in Genesis. So, during this period, the suggestion of all these dead, 'fossilised' creatures on the beach brought into question the perfection of God's creation, making both Mary Anning and her discoveries highly controversial.
Throughout Mary's life she went on to make a great many more discoveries, including the first complete Plesiosaurus in 1824, followed by the first complete, and still very rare, Dimorphodon in 1828. Dimorphodon macronyx was the first pterosaur to be discovered outside Germany. Unfortunately, her gender and social class prevented her from joining the major scientific institutions of the time and many of the people who bought from her claimed her glory for themselves.
Mary Anning’s legacy
Mary died in 1847 at the age of 47 from breast cancer. Mary’s grave is located in St Michael's Parish Church in Lyme Regis, where her brother Joseph is also buried. Mary's life is also commemorated at the church with a stained-glass window.
Lyme Regis Museum is built on the site of Mary Anning's home and fossil shop and has recently opened the Mary Anning Wing. The museum staff pride themselves on being Mary Anning experts, organising Mary Anning walks and fossil walks along the beaches where she made some of the most significant geological finds of the time.
On the 21st May 2022 a new statue of Mary Anning was unveiled at the eastern end of Long Entry, on what would have been Mary’s 223rd birthday.
Throughout her life she made many great scientific discoveries and her legacy lives on with the fossil hunters who visit the Jurassic Coast in search of the next big find. Join a fossil walk or organised tour on your visit and follow in Mary Anning’s footsteps. What will you unearth?
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