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Anning, Mary

lyme regis geological society

(1799–1847) British palaeontologist.

Mary Anning had the good fortune to be born in Lyme Regis in Dorset, a place of great geological interest and, when a year old, to survive a lightning strike. Her nurse sheltered with her beneath a tree during a thunderstorm with two others; only Mary survived.

Her father, a cabinetmaker, supplemented his income by selling local fossils to summer visitors. He died when Mary was 11 years old and she, apparently well trained by him, continued to help the family income by the same means. Her brother discovered the head of a marine reptile in the cliffs between Lyme Regis and Charmouth in 1811 and Mary carefully excavated the complete remains, named Ichthyosaurus in 1817; she sold it to a collector for £23. This was the beginning of a life-time’s fruitful fossil-hunting; her value to palaeontologists was in her local knowledge, her skill in recognition and the care she took to present her finds in an uninjured state. In 1823 she discovered the complete skeleton of an little-known saurian, named Plesiosaurus by William Conybeare (1787–1857) and described by him at a meeting of the Geological Society in London in 1824. Another major discovery of hers at Lyme was described as Pterodactylus macronyx by William Buckland (1784–1856) in 1829; this fossil of a strange flying reptile attracted much attention.

Mary Anning supplied fossils to palaeontologists, collectors and museums, as well as to the visitors to her shop in Lyme Regis and attracted the general public to fossil-collecting and to herself, by her successes. She became both knowledgeable and aware of the significance of her discoveries. She left no publications and her contribution to the ‘golden age’ of British geology has been largely neglected; her discoveries were described and collected by others. In her later years she was assisted by a small government grant awarded by the prime minister, Lord Melbourne, at the prompting of Buckland and the Geological Society of London. When she died her work was acknowledged by the president of the Society in his anniversary address. Later a stained-glass window to her memory was placed by the Fellows in the parish church at Lyme Regis.

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