Your browser is not supported. For the best experience, you should upgrade to a modern browser with improved speed and security.

Mary Anning: How A Poor British Carpenter's Daughter Became "The Greatest Fossil Hunter Ever Known"

English paleontologist Mary Anning discovered the first known ichthyosaur skeleton at only 12 years old and went on to make many more discoveries which changed human's understanding of prehistoric life.

The phrase "she sells seashells by the sea shore" isn't just a tongue twister; many people believe it refers to the trailblazing English paleontologist Mary Anning! When she was only 12 years old, Anning discovered the first complete ichthyosaur skeleton and she spent the rest of her life searching out fossils that helped change humans' understanding of prehistoric life and natural history. Sadly, because she was a woman, she was rarely credited for her critical discoveries, and only in recent years have her wide-ranging contributions received the recognition they deserve.

Mary Anning was born on May 21, 1799 in Lyme Regis in Southwest England. Her father was a carpenter who supplemented his income by selling fossils from the Dorset cliff beds. Local folklore says that, when Anning was 15 months old, a neighbor was holding her and chatting with two other women when lightning struck the tree above them. All three women died, but onlookers rushed Anning home and revived her with warm water. Reportedly, she was a sickly baby, but after the lightning strike, she grew healthy and strong and demonstrated a quick and curious mind.

Anning had almost no formal schooling; she often had to join her father and brother Joseph — her only surviving sibling — searching for fossils to sell. Visitors were eager to buy curios like "snake-stones" (ammonites), "devil's fingers" (belemnites), and "verteberries" (vertebrae) that eroded out of the cliffs. The work could be dangerous, but finding a major fossil could mean the difference between eating well and starving, particularly after her father died in 1810. Anning had a knack for hunting down good specimens, and the sure-footed girl was often able to get to places others couldn't reach.

She made her first well-known find in 1811 at age 12; her brother had found an ichthyosaur skull and Anning discovered the rest of the 17-foot (5.2 m) long skeleton of the giant extinct marine reptile. The family sold it to a local lord for £23, the equivalent of about $1,870 today, who then sold it to a major collector who displayed it in London.

There the fossil caused a sensation as the strange creature appeared to be older than the Biblical account of creation would allow and it proved that animals could become completely extinct. This flew in the face of the scientific wisdom of the day, and required scientists to reevaluate both the age of the Earth and the history of life upon it. Anning's discoveries and the scientific questions they raised also set the stage for Charles Darwin's articulation of the theory of evolution a generation later.

But this shift in scientific thinking didn't do much for the Annings; they were still eking out what money they could with smaller fossil finds. By 1820, the family had made no major discoveries for a year, and were on the verge of selling their furniture to pay their rent. A collector and long-time customer, Lietuenant-Colonel Thomas James Birch, auctioned the fossils he had bought from them on their behalf. He raised enough money to put the Annings in a more stable financial position. The auction also brought them to the attention of the growing geological community.

As she made more discoveries, Anning's reputation continued to grow. In 1823, she discovered the first complete plesiosaurus skeleton, and then in 1828, the first British pterosaur fossil. Despite her limited education, she read scientific papers, trained herself in geology and paleontology, and even taught herself anatomy through dissection. Many scientists praised the quality of her scientific illustrations. By 1826, she had saved enough money to buy a home with a storefront window where she opened a shop named Anning's Fossil Depot and sold fossils to collectors and museum curators from around the world.

Still, the gender and class barriers of the time held her back from both the recognition and compensation that her unique discoveries should have afforded her. When geologists published papers about scientifically important fossils, they rarely mentioned who discovered them. Although she was considered one of Britain's most knowledgeable paleontologists, women were not permitted to join the Geological Society of London.

The only writing she ever had published in a scientific journal was a letter to the Magazine of Natural History in 1839, questioning their claim that a recently discovered shark fossil represented a new genus, since she had discovered similar fossils long before. Anna Pinney, a young woman who sometimes joined Anning on fossil hunts, once wrote, "She says the world has used her ill... These men of learning have sucked her brains, and made a great deal of publishing works, of which she furnished the contents, while she derived none of the advantages."

In 1830, Anning was struggling again; major finds were few and far between, and Britain's struggling economy had reduced the demand for smaller fossils. The risks of her profession were also laid bare when, in 1833, her constant companion when she went collecting, her small terrier Tray, was crushed to death by rock falling from a cliff. Then, in 1835, she lost her life savings to a bad investment. William Buckland, a prominent British geologist and a friend of Anning's, convinced the British government to grant her an annual pension in honor of her contributions to science. By the mid-1840s, her work tailed off; she had developed breast cancer and was unable to go looking for fossils because of the pain. She died on March 9, 1847 at the age of 47 and was buried at the local parish church.

After her death, and particularly in recent years, appreciation for her contributions grew. Several major scientists, British geologist Henry De la Beche and British paleontologist Gideon Mantell, credited her fossil discoveries in their papers, and her obituary was published in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society — even though they had refused to admit her to the society and wouldn't admit any woman until 1904. Historians agree that we may never know just how many specimens she discovered, but today, she's hailed as one of the great early paleontologists and is now the subject of numerous books, including those highlighted below. Britain's Natural History Museum has described her as the greatest fossil hunter ever known and, in 2010, the Royal Society included Anning in a list of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science. "The carpenter's daughter has won a name for herself," Charles Dickens once noted, "and has deserved to win it."

Books For Children and Adults About Paleontologist Mary Anning

Stone Girl Bone Girl: The Story of Mary Anning

Stone Girl Bone Girl: The Story of Mary Anning

Written by: Laurence Anholt
Illustrated by: Sheila Moxley
Recommended Age: 5 - 8

When her peers taunted her by calling her "stone girl, bone girl," they had no idea that Mary Anning would make groundbreaking discoveries that would change the way we saw the history of our planet! Mary started fossil hunting by her father's side, and when he died, she continued to hunt, now accompanied by a speckled dog she had met near his grave. Together, they would discover that the rumors of "sea dragons" in the cliffs near Lyme Regis were true... but the dragon Mary unearthed was actually the first complete ichthyosaur skeleton. With vibrant illustrations and a tone of excitement and mystery, this book makes a great read-aloud introduction to Anning's childhood.

Mary Anning and The Sea Dragon

Mary Anning and The Sea Dragon

Written by: Jeannine Atkins
Illustrated by: Michael Dooling
Recommended Age: 5 - 8

Over two hundred years ago, a young girl who gathered seashells to supplement her family's income made an astounding discovery! Mary Anning, the discoverer of the first complete ichthyosaur skeleton, would become famous not only for her incredible luck — she also found two complete plesiosaur skeletons, the first pterosaur skeleton outside of Germany, and many important fossils of fish — but also for her observations that changed the way people thought about prehistoric life. This picture book biography captures Anning's determination, intelligence, and patience at a time when no women could fully participate in the scientific world.

Dinosaur Lady: The Daring Discoveries of Mary Anning, the First Paleontologist
New!

Dinosaur Lady: The Daring Discoveries of Mary Anning, the First Paleontologist
New!

Written by: Linda Skeers
Illustrated by: Marta Álvarez Miguéns
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

When Mary Anning was a girl, she joined her father hunting for fossils near her home in England — a way for the family to make a little extra money. The sharp-eyed girl discovered something even more exciting: dinosaur bones! Anning's discoveries rocked the world, because they proved that life was far older than people thought — and that some creatures had gone extinct. But because people believed women couldn't be scientists, she rarely got credit for what she found. Today, though, we recognize her influence on our understanding of the world! This vibrant picture book telling of Anning's life includes fascinating back matter about Anning, plus lots of fossil facts!

The Fossil Girl: Mary Anning's Dinosaur Discovery

The Fossil Girl: Mary Anning's Dinosaur Discovery

Written by: Catherine Brighton
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

Mary Anning's family were barely making ends meet running a little fossil shop... and when a storm wiped out nearly all of their merchandise, the situation seemed dire. As Mary and her brother searched for new fossils to replenish the store's shelves, they spotted something huge — and unusual — high on a cliff face. Was that an eye — and what animal could it possibly be from? Mary was determined to find a way to bring the fossil down for examination, despite the risks of moving something so large and heavy. And when she finally did, she revealed the first complete fossil of an ichthyosaurus, the beginning of a series of discoveries that would revolutionize our understanding of prehistoric creatures. This fascinating tale, told in graphic novel format, provides an exciting introduction to Anning's life and work.

Gutsy Girls Go For Science: Paleontologists

Gutsy Girls Go For Science: Paleontologists

Written by: Karen Bush Gibson
Illustrated by: Hui Li
Recommended Age: 8 - 11

Whether you're fascinated by dinosaurs, dig trilobites, or wonder about the history of human evolution, paleontologists are seeking the same answers you are! This book from the Gutsy Girls Go For Science series introduces readers to five female paleontologists: Mary Anning, Mignon Talbot, Tilly Edinger, Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska, and Mary Leakey. Then, kids can try hands-on STEM activities like modeling an excavation and preparing specimens to gain critical thinking skills and get an idea what it takes to succeed in this field. This full-color book packed with fascinating facts is sure to get kids curious about what lies underneath their feet!

Mary Anning's Curiosity

Mary Anning's Curiosity

Written by: Monica Kulling
Illustrated by: Melissa Castrillón
Recommended Age: 8 - 11

Mary Anning was only 12 when she made a discovery that would change her life — and our understanding of the world: the world's first Icthyosaurus skeleton! The talented young fossil hunter was prompted by necessity as well as curiosity: her family was poor, and when her father was injured and later died, her fossils were a key source of income. However, her remarkable finds changed the course of scientific history, and Charles Darwin even cited some of them in On the Origin of Species! This fictionalized telling of Anning's childhood will fascinate middle graders who dream of their own groundbreaking finds.

The Case of the Counterfeit Criminals

The Case of the Counterfeit Criminals

Written by: Jordan Stratford
Illustrated by: Kelly Murphy
Recommended Age: 8 - 12

Mary Godwin and Lady Ada Byron are back with another mystery to solve in this series that reimagines the pair as best friends and detectives! Fossil-hunter Mary Anning is being blackmailed: her beloved dog has been kidnapped and the kidnappers are demanding that she certify fake dinosaur bones that are about to go up for auction. They're sure they can crack the case, but with only three days before the auction, they're going to have to work fast! The third volume in the Wollstonecraft Detective Agency series will delight young mystery lovers — and introduce them to yet another fascinating historical figure.

Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science

Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science

Written by: Jeannine Atkins
Recommended Age: 9 - 14

This gorgeously written novel in verse celebrates three girls in three different time periods who grew up to become groundbreaking scientists. Maria Merian was sure that caterpillars were not wicked things born from mud, as most people of her time believed. More than a century later, Mary Anning helped her father collect stone sea creatures from the cliffs in southwest England. Intrepid and patient, she eventually discovered fossils that would change people’s vision of the past. Across the ocean, Maria Mitchell longed to discover a new comet and after years of studying the night sky, she finally did. Told in vibrant, evocative poems, this stunning novel celebrates the joy of discovery and finding wonder in the world around us.

Girls Who Looked Under Rocks

The Lives of Six Pioneering Naturalists

Girls Who Looked Under Rocks

The Lives of Six Pioneering Naturalists

Written by: Jeannine Atkins
Illustrated by: Paula Conner
Recommended Age: 10 and up

For these six women, curiosity and a passion for science drove them to overcome obstacles and prejudices in order to share their fascinating discoveries about the natural world! Jeannine Atkins discusses the childhoods and careers of six very different women — Maria Merian (b.1647), Anna Comstock (b.1854), Frances Hamerstrom (b.1907), Rachel Carson (b.1907), Miriam Rothschild (b.1908), and Jane Goodall (b.1934) — all of whom became renowned scientists, artists and writers. An excellent resource for students and a fascinating read for young science lovers, this book reminds readers that amazing discoveries can be found in surprising places.

The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World

The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World

Written by: Shelley Emling
Recommended Age: Adults

Mary Anning's nose for jaw-dropping fossil finds unearthed remarkable specimens — discoveries that would fascinate collectors and the scientific world, and change our understanding of paleontology. In fact, Charles Darwin even referenced her fossils in his On the Origin of Species! In this fascinating biography, author Shelley Emling follows Anning from a childhood full of desperate scrabbling for fossils to sell, to her first major find at the age of 12, to citations in the biggest scientific journals of the day. Her own scientific work was little recognized, both in her own time and in ours, but this biography pays tribute to the remarkable influence of this daring, curious young woman.

Remarkable Creatures: A Novel

Remarkable Creatures: A Novel

Written by: Tracy Chevalier
Recommended Age: Adults

Mary Anning uses her unique eye for spotting fossils to help her impoverished family get by... but when she discovers a whole skeleton — a massive one — her life is about to change forever. Not only does she have to face the physical dangers of excavating and transporting such a giant fossil, but she also faces gossipy neighbors and skepticism and anger from the religious community as the implications of her find sink in. She finds an ally in Elizabeth Philpot, a middle-class beach hound who appreciates her gift, and together, they changed the scientific world and our understanding of life itself. This historical fiction novel brings Anning and Philpot to life in a story of friendship, respect, and discovery.

Jurassic Mary: Mary Anning and the Primeval Monster

Jurassic Mary: Mary Anning and the Primeval Monster

Written by: Patricia Pierce
Recommended Age: Adults

When Mary Anning died, Charles Dickens wrote, "The carpenter's daughter has won a name for herself, and deserved to win it." It was high praise for the groundbreaking young woman who discovered fossils that earned her international fame: the first ichthyosaurus skeleton, the first whole plesiosaurus skeleton, innumerable fishes, and more. During her lifetime, she was respected (although she was deemed ineligible to join the Geological Society of London)... but afterwards, scientists and authors praised the naturalists who had bought her specimens, rather than Anning herself. Author Patricia Pierce creates a vivid and intriguing portrait of this determined woman that finally gives her the credit she deserves.

Mary Anning Trailblazer Tee

Mary Anning Trailblazer Tee

Brand: Piccolina
Recommended Age: 2 - 7

Mary Anning didn't just find fossil seashells — she found the first ichthyosaur, two complete pleisosaur skeletons, and many important fish fossils! Pay tribute to this inspiring woman with this long-sleeved crew-neck shirt from Piccolina. This 60% cotton, 40% polyester shirt is comfortable to wear and features a graphic of Anning cleaning some of her fossil discoveries. Available in toddler sizes 2T, 3T, 4T, and 5T, and children's sizes 6, 7, and 8.

Amazon.com.au

Women in Science - Mary Anning Poster

Women in Science - Mary Anning Poster

Manufacturer: Rachel Ignotofsky
Recommended Age: 3 and up

Illustrator Rachel Ignotofsky pays tribute to groundbreaking paleontologist Mary Anning, who discovered the world's first ichthyosaur, plesiosaur, and pterosaur, in this beautifully illustrated infographic poster! Ignotofsky, the creator of the best-selling Women In Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World, has created a visually appealing poster that includes key facts about Anning's life and work. Available in both 8 by 10 and 11 by 14 sizes, and printed on archival quality paper, it's perfect to adorn the walls of any paleontology buff.

You May Also Like

Help keep A Mighty Girl growing in the years ahead!

If you discover books or other resources via this post that you would like to purchase, please use the "Buy at Amazon" and other links found on every A Mighty Girl product page. By doing so, at no added cost to you, you help to support the site and allow us to continue providing you with wonderful girl-empowering resources. We appreciate your support!