Mary Anning: Jurassic dragons from Whitby
Oscar Roch (Age 10, USA)
This amazing article about the life of Mary Anning, was written by Oscar Roch who is just TEN years old, for a school project. It is his own work, with just books and guides to help obtain facts. After receiving the handwritten project in the post, we have been so impressed, we promised to feature it.
I have chosen to do my project on an amazingly, intelligent palaeontologist whose very existence was a miracle to everyone. Who (Legend has it) was an ordinary child, but when lightning struck and nearly killer her, she transformed into a child of extraordinary knowledge and energy. She grew up in poverty, therefore to help the family; she had to search for fossils, to then sell. Unfortunately, her father died in debt. But, after all these hardships in her early years, she pulled through and changed the knowledge of palaeontology. This wonderful woman was named Mary Anning, the Princess of Palaeontology.
On 21 May, 1799 a child was born that would ‘Change the world for the better’. Mary Anning was born in Cockmoil Square, in the small resort town of Lyme Regis in Dorset, England.
She was the daughter of Richard Anning and Mary Moore. Mary Anning had nine other siblings, but sadly only her and one older brother, Joseph, survived through childhood.
In August 1800, when Mary was only 15 months old, she was being cared for by a neighbour, Elizabeth Hasking and her two young friends. They were at a horseshow to watch the jumping in a place called Rack Field, when it started to rain heavily. Therefore they ran quickly to take shelter under an elm tree. Suddenly lightning struck, hitting a clump of elm trees and tragically killed Elizabeth and three other women. Mary lay unconscious, sheltered by Elizabeth’s body; she soon recovered consciousness after being bathed in water. According to her parents, Mary had always been a sickly child prior to the lightning strike; however, afterwards she was a robust and healthy child. Her parents believed the strike credited her with high intelligence, exceptional liveliness and a gritty determination.
During the week Mary’s father, Richard, worked as a carpenter and cabinetmaker, he was also an amateur fossil hunter. Unfortunately, he earned very little money from carpentry, barely being able to afford the rent on their home, close to the sea. Apparently, the house often flooded during storms, this was obviously not good, however in another way it was for the Annings, as it meant that the coastline was being gradually eroded by the sea, exposing fossils in the rocks (from the Jurassic era). From a young age, Mary and Joseph would go with their father to the cliffs to hunt for fossils. She soon learnt to recognise Ammonites by their spiral shape and the bones of marine reptiles and ancient fish which lay in the rocks.
To earn extra money for the family, Mary would go out with her brother to search for fossils or ‘ancient mysteries’ as they were called back then. When they found any fossils, they then returned home to give them to their parents, who would then sell them to wealthy tourists at the weekends, from a stall outside their shop in the town.
In the early 1800s, wealthy people visited the resort town of Lyme Regis and they were keen to purchase souvenirs, such as fossils from the area. Sometimes Mary would sell the ammonites on the beach, it is believed that the tongue twister ‘She sells sea shells by the sea shore’ was based on a song that was written by Terry Sullivan which was thought to be based on Mary.
“She Sells Seashells by the Seashore“
She sells seashells by the seashore,
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure.
So if she sells seashells on the seashore,
Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.
As a female child in the Victorian era, Mary Anning was extremely intelligent, especially since she didn’t go to a proper school; therefore she’d had very little education. Fortunately for Mary, her parents belonged to a Congregational Church. This allowed Mary to attend church and Sunday School from the age of 8. The Congregational Church believed in educating everybody, unlike other churches in this period, this meant that Mary received a small amount of education in the form of learning to read and write.
When Mary was just 10 years old, her father tragically died from tuberculosis, he was only 44 years old. He left the family in debt and as he was the ‘breadwinner’ of the family, it meant that they struggled to survive even more. The family received a little help between 1811 and 1816, in the form of money, food and clothes from the Overseers of the Poor. Although this helped, it was not enough, and as the Anning family didn’t have any real skills, their only way of earning money was to carry on in their father’s footsteps in finding fossils along the coast.
Finally a year later, good luck came their way. In 1811, when Mary was 12, Joseph found the skull of an ichthyosaur (which means fish-like lizard) and amazingly Mary then discovered the rest of the skeleton over a period of time. This was a very significant find, which meant they were paid well, they sold it for £23 to Mr Henley, the local Lord of the Manor, but this was not enough to clear their debt.
This find was also the basis for the first ever scientific paper on an ichthyosaur, published in 1814 by Everard-Home. In this period science was classed as an activity for gentlemen, therefore as Joseph and Mary were children and their mother was classed as lower-class, so the only acknowledgement the Annings ever received was payment for their discoveries (this was also the case for many of Mary’s later discoveries that were described in scientific papers). The ichthyosaur they had discovered is now displayed in The British Museum in London, England.
A few years later, Mary found three more fossilized ichthyosaurs, they were between 5 to 20 feet long.
In January 1823, George Cumberland, an artist and fossil collector, wrote in the Bristol Mirror about Mary’s 5 foot ichthyosaur “The very finest specimen of a fossil Ichthyosaur ever found in Europe… we owe entirely to the persevering industry of a young female fossilist, of the name of Anning… and her dangerous employment. To her exertions we owe nearly all the fine specimens of Ichthyosauri of the great collections … “.
At the age of 14, Mary had an awful experience when she found the body of a young woman on the beach. She had been on a ship that had sunk with over 100 people on board. Mary’s religious beliefs helped her through this upsetting period in her life. She visited church every day to put fresh flowers on the body, until the young woman’s family claimed it.
In order to help the family’s finances, Joseph started an apprenticeship in 1816 with an upholsterer. This meant that Mary had to carry on searching for fossils alone. It was a dangerous activity to carry out alone, as rock falls from the cliffs happened quickly, and very often one followed another. She had several narrow escapes from grave injuries; however her pet dog was not so fortunate when one day it was crushed under a rock fall from the cliffs above.
She wrote to a friend of the incident “Perhaps you will laugh when I say that the death of my old faithful dog quite upset me, the cliff 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.”
Saved from hunger
Times were very hard for the Annings and they had to start selling their belongings, including their furniture. Thomas Birch, a local naturalist had an outstanding collection of fossils, most of which he had purchased from the Annings. He was horrified to hear of their situation and decided to provide some support for the family. He sold some of his collection at an auction in London and gave the proceeds to the Annings to support their finances.
Even though Mary was extremely successful by way of her fossil hunting, she still struggled financially for the reason that her earnings were unreliable.
Mary set up a small shop in Lyme Regis to sell her fossil to the tourists. As more wealthy fossil enthusiasts heard about Mary and her findings, many travelled to the area to meet her, as well as to buy her fossils. One of whom was the King of Saxony who visited her in 1844 and purchased a baby ichthyosaur. Mary’s fossils were being sold to collectors and museums worldwide.
Over the years Mary discovered other Ichthyosaurs, the most complete specimen she ever found of this type of fossil was in 1819, and she sold this for £100. Her best and most important discovery would follow.
It was in 1823 that Mary discovered several bones of another creature. Two prominent Scientists, Henry De La Beche and William Conybeare, described the bones and named this new specimen ‘Plesiosaur’. This find was described in their scientific accounts, however once again, Mary’s name was not mentioned, this was to happen on numerous occasions, and in fact she was never completely accepted by the British scientific community during the 19th Century.
On 10 December 1823, aged 24, Mary caused a sensation as she found a complete plesiosaur skeleton. It was a very unusual looking creature at a length of almost 3 metres; it had a tiny head, a long thin neck and huge paddles. Mary received very little credit for this find.
To her surprise, in 1829, Mary discovered a second plesiosaur skeleton. This proved to be even more complete than her original discovery.
In 1830, Henry De La Beche, who had gained a lot of information and assistance with his scientific research from Mary, donated all of the proceeds from his first version of his illustration, Duria Antiquior. He had based his paintings of the portrayal of prehistoric life on Mary’s discoveries.
Interestingly, not only was a plesiosaur Mary’s greatest find, it was also the last major discovery that she made. In 1830, she found a new species of plesiosaur: a Plesiosaurus microcephalus, this was one of the most complete fossilized skeletons that she ever found. There is a cast of this fossil displayed at the Natural History Museum in Paris, France.
Mary found fossils in 1824 that she was unsure about. It was her that realised in 1828, when she found more of these fossils in the abdomens of ichthyosaurs, that these findings were coprolites (fossilized faeces). Through this discovery scientists were given a wonderful opportunity to learn exactly what the animals ate hundreds of millions of years ago. When they broke open these fossils, they found fish scales and bones.
An Oxford scientist, William Buckland, who was well known at the time, studied these findings with Mary. Nevertheless, he did not acknowledge Mary when he his papers were published explaining the discovery. He did, however, mention her in his paper in 1929, after she found the first British fossilized flying reptile, Pteradactylus macronyx, another palaeontologist, Richard Owen later renamed this Dimorphodon macronyx. William Buckland could often be seen with Mary searching the cliffs along Lyme Regis and Charmouth. They would return from a long day with a collection of Ammonites, Belemnites, Terebratula and fish and reptile bones.
Pterosaurs (flying reptiles)
During 1828 Mary made another astonishing discovery when she found the first pterosaur ever to be found outside of Germany. This was the first ever Dimorphodon genus to be found (Dimorphodon macronyx).
Another remarkable find that Mary made in 1828, was when she discovered a fossilized ink sac of an ancient squid-like creature called Belemniosepia. It was a 10 armed creature that ejected ink into the water, in the same way as squid at cuttlefish.
Mary realised that the fossilized ink could be watered down and could then be used for writing and drawing. This led to drawings being made using this fossilized ink; these were then being sold in the shops in Lyme Regis.
A fossilized fish was found by Mary in 1829. It appeared to be part ray and part shark. Its body was flattened (ray-like) and it had an enormous flat head that was half of its body length. The male species also had what appeared to look like long horns.
This discovery was thought provoking because Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace’s theory of evolution by natural selection was almost 30 years in the future. At this time scientists were still trying to understand exactly what fossil could tell them about natural history.
Studying and correspondence
During this period, Mary continued to study hard and began to correspond with other enthusiastic fossil collectors worldwide.
She took an interest in learning about the anatomy of the various fossils, this was hard for Mary, due to her lack of education, nevertheless she persevered and even learnt French so that she could read the works of a well-known naturalist and fossil scientist, Georges Cuvier. Interestingly, he had declared that the complete Plesiosaurus skeleton that Mary found in 1823 was a fake. He did not believe that such a creature existed with such a tiny head and huge body. However, when he attended the London Geological Society meeting to observe this skeleton, he declared “It is the most amazing creature ever discovered”.
Through her studies she learnt to expertly remove fossilized bones from the rocks and how to then reconstruct the skeletons.
In 1837 the scientific community supported her, having realised just how much she had achieved. At the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Prime Minister Lord Melbourne made a donation and along with funds raised at the meeting an annuity of £25 was given to Mary.
Mary’s mother died in 1842 and only four years later, Mary heartbreakingly developed breast cancer.
The Geological Society heard that Mary was becoming progressively ill and therefore the members set up a fund to pay for her treatment. Sadly the medication did not work and Mary died on 9th March 1847. She the medication did not work and Mary died on 9th March 1847. She was only 48 years old and had never married, having dedicated her life to discovering fossils.
Henry De La Beche who now respected Mary, having studied alongside her for so long, published an obituary in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society. A woman being honoured in this way was unheard of at this time. It wasn’t until 1904 that a woman was finally admitted into the Society, however if Mary had been alive then she would not have been able to join, as she was lower class.
The Geological Society paid for a large stained glass window to be placed in the North Isle of St. Michael’s Church, in Lyme Regis, in 1850, in dedication to Mary. There is an inscription that reads “This window is sacred to the memory of Mary Anning, of this parish, who died March 9th, 1847, and is erected by the Vicar of Lyme and some of the members of the Geological Society of London, in commemoration of her usefulness in furthering the science of geology, as also of her benevolence of heart and integrity of life”.
Mary’s achievements and her life were both celebrated in an article written after her death by the author Charles Dickens.
A blue plaque with Mary’s name is now on the wall of the Lyme Regis museum, to mark the site of the house in which Mary was born.
This type of blue plaque is a permanent commemorative sign, which is to show a historical marker. These plaques are installed in the United Kingdom and elsewhere to show a connection between that location and a famous person or event. This idea was first thought of in 1863, by William Ewart, who was a British politician. Another fascinating fact about these blue plaques is that they are the oldest such scheme in the world.
In her lifetime two fossilized fish were named in her honour, in 1841, Acrodus anningiae and in 1844, Belenostomus anningiae.
After her death, other fossils named in tribute to her were the bivalve mollusc genus Anningella, the plesiosaur genus Anningasaura, the Ichthyosaurus anningae species and the therapsid reptile genus Anningia.
Mary was recognised in 2010 by the Royal Society as one of the ten British women who have most influenced the developed world of science.
Mary’s contribution to palaeontology was truly inspirational; she will never be forgotten, this is why she is known as the Princess of Palaeontology.
16 thoughts on “Mary Anning: Jurassic dragons from Whitby”
Great job Oscar!
Wonderful Oscar clever young man
Fantastic article. He is an amazing young man Henry
Fantastic article well done Oscar uncle Harry
Wonderful from one person so young
Brilliant and factual I’ve learnt a lot from this.
Brilliant and factual I’ve learnt a lot from this.
Oscar your famous
Excellent work, very informative, found out a few facts I did not know. Well done, a budding palaeonotolgist.
Great stuff Oscar!!
Keep up the good work and keep on fossiling!
Great article from a young man