Lyme Regis residents called the coiled-up ammonites “snake stones”

What did Mary Anning discover?

The French naturalist George Cuvier had demonstrated that fossils were the remains of fantastical creatures that no longer roamed the earth, but it was Mary Anning’s discoveries of fossils along the coast of Dorset that brought home the fact that southern England once was filled with giant monsters more strange and terrible than the wildest dream.

Somewhat unfairly, she gained scant credit for her achievement in her own short lifetime. Mary Anning was eventually acknowledged by the Royal Society as one of the ten British women who most influenced the history of science, but her background was one of poverty and her education was meagre. Her home, Lyme Regis, had become a holiday destination for the English middle classes, after the outbreak of revolution in France in 1792 had made the Continent too dangerous to visit. To scratch a living, Mary Anning’s poverty-stricken father dug strange-shaped rocks out of the crumbling cliffs nearby and sold them to the tourists.

When was Mary Anning born?

Mary Anning’s parents had ten children, but only two survived to adulthood. She herself born on 21 May 1799 but was struck by lightning aged fifteen months, appeared to be dead but was resuscitated by immersion in a warm bath. After that event, which a local doctor thought was miraculous, she seemed to blossom. She helped her father in the family business of collecting fossils. These were known locally as curios, and they had names such as ‘snake stone’ for the coiled-up ammonites and ‘devil’s fingers’ for belemnites. The cliffs they came from were composed of alternating layers of limestone and clay and are part of the Blue Lias geological formation from the later Triassic and earlier Jurassic times, between 195 and 200 million years ago. The area is now a world heritage site known as the Jurassic Coast. The cliffs are unstable, and during the winter they would regularly collapse, revealing more fossils. This season was when Anning did most of her work.

This work was dangerous. Her father eventually died partly due to injuries sustained from a fall from a cliff, and she herself was nearly swept away in a landslide that killed her pet dog Tray.‘Perhaps you will laugh when I say that the death of my old faithful dog has quite upset me, the cliff that fell upon him and killed him in a moment before my eyes, and close to my feet … it was but a moment between me and the same fate.’ However, she persevered and her discoveries began to attract the notice of the gentlemen of science. In a find important to students of the Loch Ness monster, on 10 December 1823 she found the first complete Plesiosaurus,a 3.5 m (11 ft) long large marine reptile with a long neck and small head. This was very much like the creature the first witnesses, the Spicers described as crossing the road next to Loch Ness. Her discovery aroused huge excitement in the scientific community, which in England was largely composed of God-fearing Anglican clergymen.

Plesiosaurus was one of the first reptiles to be discovered from the ‘antediluvian’ or Pre-Flood period described in the Bible. The name meant ‘near lizard’ to show that it was more like a modern reptile than Ichthyosaurus, the complete specimen of which Mary Anning had also found in the same rock strata just a few years earlier. The significance of her discovery was that as a creature with no living representative, Plesiosaurus provided evidence for the new theory of extinction. This theory contributed to some of Charles Darwin’s ideas about evolution.

Tourists started to come to Lyme Regis to see Mary Anning at work. Lady Harriet Sylvester visited her on 17 September 1824 and noted in her diary:

“The extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she has made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong. She fixes the bones on a frame with cement and then makes drawings and has them engraved… It is certainly a wonderful instance of divine favour – that this poor, ignorant girl should be so blessed, for by reading and application she has arrived to that degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom.”

Mary Anning also demonstrated a rigorous attitude towards scientific truth. She noticed that one of the fossil collectors, Thomas Hawkins, was ‘improving’ some of the finds: ‘He is such an enthusiast that he makes things as he imagines they ought to be; and not as they are really found.’Hawkins was later found to have added faked fossil bones to make some ichthyosaur skeletons seem complete and had then sold them on to the British Museum without declaring his additions. In this he was certainly not as egregious a faker as Charles Dawson, the Piltdown Man hoaxster, but truthfulness is the very foundation of scientific knowledge and Anning understood this.

How and when did Mary Anning die?

Mary Anning died of breast cancer at the age of 47. Towards the end of her brief life, she did gain plaudits from the geological community and was granted a small pension, but she suffered from her poverty and her gender. It is interesting to imagine what she could have done in our times. It is good to report that Lyme Regis is planning to erect a statue of their famous fossil hunter.