Mary Anning (21 May 1799 – 9 March 1847) was a British fossil collector and paleontologist who became known for important finds she made in the Jurassic marine fossil beds at Lyme Regis in Dorset, where she lived. Her work contributed to fundamental changes in scientific thinking about prehistoric life and the history of the Earth. She was raised Congregationalist, and later converted to Anglicanism.
She was marginalized not only by her family’s poverty but by her sex, her regional dialect and her nearly complete lack of schooling. But she enjoyed one natural advantage: the very good fortune of having been born in exactly the right place at the right time, alongside some of the most geologically unstable coastline in the world; it was—and still is—a place permeated with fossils.
In 1812, at the age of twelve, she discovered a strange fossil on the sea cliffs near her home. It turned out she had discovered the remains of an ichthyosaurus, an almost 20ft long prehistoric sea monster. She continued to explore the area, making first discoveries of a stunning array of dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures along with all sorts of shells and ancient remains, some of which she sold to the tourists who visited the area. You know what was said about her? She Sells See Shells On The Sea Shore!
Fossil collecting was a popular pastime in the late 18th and early 19th century, but gradually developed into a science as the importance of fossils to geology and biology became better understood. Anning searched for fossils in the area’s Blue Lias cliffs, particularly during the winter months when landslides exposed new fossils that had to be collected quickly before they were lost to the sea. It was dangerous work, and she nearly lost her life in 1833 during a landslide.
We are told that in 1833, she was visited by a tourist, the Rev. Henry Rawlins, and his 6-year-old son, Frank. Henry Rawlins believed that God created the world within a week, but Anning described to young Frank how the fossils purchased by his father had been found by her at all different levels in the cliffs, explaining that this meant the creatures possibly had been created and had lived at different times. According to Frank’s journals, his father refused to discuss the issue after they left Anning’s home. – The evidence for an old earth grew steadily. A few years before she died, she remarked that—from what she’d seen of the fossil world—there is a “connection of analogy between the Creatures of the former and present World.” She continued to believe in God throughout her life and she also came to accept that evolution was part of God’s plan. Toward the end of her life, she copied into her journals many poems and passages laced with religious overtones.In 2010, the Royal Society included Anning in a list of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science.
Here is one of the drawings done with 160 million year old ink.