Selling fossils to visitors barely kept the wolf from the door of Mary Anning’s family in their storm-lashed sea-front house in Lyme Regis. Following the example of her cabinet-maker father Richard and older brother Joseph, she became adept, not just at finding them in the Lower Liassic rocks of nearby Black Ven, but also in preparing them as fine specimens. Local gentry helped publicise and sell the complete ‘crocodile’ (later to be named Ichthyosaurus) which she and Joseph found and extracted in 1811/1812. Scholars soon beat a path to her door to take advantage of her local knowledge and expertise; but Mary was of the wrong sex, class and religious persuasion to be acknowledged in academia. Recognition of her contribution to palaeontology was slow in coming, but in 1838, nine years before her death, aged just 47, the British Association raised an annuity to support her. And in 2010, the Royal Society included her in a list of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science.
She who once sold sea-shells on that tongue-twisting sea-shore
Wasn’t just a “fossilist”. Miss Anning was much more:
Survivor of a lightning strike, selling fossils from her door,
She grew to be an expert and a fine preparator.
Her Dad it was who showed her how her finds could extract cash
From seasiders from Town, down for a gentle Georgian splash.
Then brother Joseph found a skull. She realised in a flash
There might skeletal remains to find; at once they made a dash
To Black Vens’s treacherous shaley slumps; but it would have to wait
Until the mudslides had dispersed – the weather would dictate.
At last she dug into the shore (or so the tales relate)
And found the bones of Ichthyosaur for her to excavate.
More ichthyosaurs, and plesiosaurs, pterodactyls and the rest
Brought Mary to the attention of the brightest and the best.
But Mary was a woman, poor, self-taught, and not well-dressed –
She wasn’t even Anglican! So, as you might have guessed,
Her expertise was used, but barely recognised in print;
Her fossil finds brought income of a sort, and just a hint
Of fame, but not of fortune. She would never make a mint,
But the BA raised a pension so that she would not die skint.
But die she did, mid-forties, of a cancer of the breast.
A dogged palaeontologist, of a character possessed
Which drove her ever onwards on her dinosaurial quest –
This Jurassic Coastal Lady, from Lyme Regis in the west.