Mary Anning (21 May 1799 – 9 March 1847) was a British
palaeontologist who became known around the world for important finds she made in the
Jurassic age marine fossil beds at
Lyme Regis where she lived. Her work contributed to the fundamental changes in scientific thinking about prehistoric life and the history of the earth that occurred in the early 19th century.
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 that killed her dog Tray. Her discoveries included the first
ichthyosaur skeleton to be correctly identified, which she and her brother Joseph found when she was just twelve years old; and the first two
plesiosaur skeletons ever found. Her observations played a key role in the discoveries that
belemnite fossils contained fossilised
ink sacs, and that
coprolites, known as
bezoar stones at the time, were fossilised faeces.
Anning's gender and social class prevented her from fully participating in the scientific community of 19th-century Britain—dominated as it was by wealthy
Anglican gentlemen. She struggled financially for much of her life. Her family were poor, and as religious
dissenters were subject to legal discrimination. Her father, a cabinetmaker, died when she was eleven. She became well known in geological circles around the world, and was consulted on issues of anatomy as well as about collecting fossils. However, as a woman she was not eligible to join the
Geological Society of London, and she did not always receive full credit for her scientific contributions. Indeed she wrote in a letter: "The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone." The only scientific writing of hers published in her lifetime appeared in the
Magazine of Natural History in 1839, an extract from a letter which Anning had written to the magazine's editor questioning one of its claims. After her death her unusual life story attracted increasing interest.
Charles Dickens wrote of her in 1865 that "[t]he carpenter's daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it."