She Sells Seashells by the Seashore
Duria_Antiquior Wikipedia Public Domain

Mary Anning (1799-1847) was one of the great fossil hunters of all time. She discovered the first ichthyosaur, the first plesiosaur, and the first pterosaur found in England. Mary and her family would look for fossils along the cliffs of Lyme Regis—a dangerous activity due to mudslides—and sell them to visitors. She was the inspiration for the rhyme, ‘She Sells Seashells by the Seashore.’

But she did much more than sell sea shells. By the mid-1820s, Anning was well-known in fossil circles and had helped many leading scientists, including William Buckland, Roderick Murchison, Louis Agassiz, Gideon Mantell, and Richard Owen.

Mary and her family were very poor. Although she was never given the scientific recognition she deserved (she was rarely credited with her discoveries), many people knew of her plight and helped her. In 1820, when Mary was destitute, having made no major finds in over a year, one of her best customers, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Birch, auctioned off many of the finest pieces he had bought from Anning over the years in order to raise money for the family.

Henry de la Beche had a lithograph made (see image) of a prehistoric scene he had painted based on her discoveries. It was called Duria Antiquior (Ancient Dorset). He sold copies and gave the money to Mary. When in 1835 she lost her life savings, William Buckland persuaded the British government to grant her a civil pension of £25 which gave her some financial security.

Today, Anning is recognized as one of the great early fossil hunters and a pioneering woman in science.

Darwin & Dinosaurs has a special section on Mary Anning, including casts of an ichthyosaur skull, and pterosaur and plesiosaur skeletons. Also on display are original fossils from Lyme Regis where she made her discoveries. The touchscreen interactives feature in-depth material on Mary Anning and her life.

 

Mary Anning with her dog

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