Mary Anning: A Lightning Strike, a Tongue Twister, and a Dinosaur
By Laura Deering
What do a lightning strike, a tongue-twister, and a dinosaur have in common? Perhaps you remember impressing childhood friends flawlessly reciting the famous tongue twister: “she-sold-seashells-upon-the-seashore.” The “she” was a real person. Another fun thing you likely learned as a child was about dinosaurs. This seashell seller also discovered dinosaurs in her youth, digging and unearthing them as early as age 12. Her many discoveries propelled scientific understanding of evolution and forever changed how we see our world.
Struck by lightning
So, who was this person? Mary Anning was born in 1799 in the seaport town of Lyme Regis, England. She was only a baby when she was struck by lightning. The bolt was so powerful it killed several people. Later, townsfolk credited the lightning strike in explaining Mary’s extreme intelligence.
Her father was a cabinet maker, who supplemented his income by walking the shore looking for shells and fossils. Mary often would join him on these hunts. The fossils back then were referred to as “curiosities,” as often it was unknown what they were. Some like the beautiful ammonite fossil was called a Snake Stone and believed to have special magical powers like casting a spell or curing blindness.
When Mary was 11, her father suffered an accident when he fell off a cliff edge and never recovered. It was a lonely and financially difficult time, as her family inherited her father’s debt, and it sunk them deeper into poverty. She eventually returned to the beach and fate unfolded when she found an unusual shell just when a wealthy tourist happened by. She was paid a generous sum that fed her family for a week! From then on, Mary walked the beach every day of her life. A year later, fate struck again when she and her brother discovered their first dinosaur.
Portrait of Mary Anning with her dog Tray and the Golden Cap outcrop in the background, Natural History Museum, London.
A portrait of Mary, shown in her early forties, carefully details her work outfit. She is armed with a pickaxe and a basket for her curiosities; it is said she invented the first hard hat, applying layers of shellac on felt. She points to her beloved dog, Tray, who protected Mary on her walks.
Lyme Regis, England
Lyme Regis clings to the coast, situated on the English Channel. It is steeped with history and even was mentioned in the Domesday Book over 1,000 years ago. The area’s location near France and Spain meant it saw many invasions and wars. U.S. troops were stationed there during World War II in preparation for D-Day.
Lyme Regis is famous for its protected harbor called the Cobb, where Meryl Streep filmed the movie The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Strolling through town, if you look closely at the lampposts, you will notice the ammonite design. And in the distance you can see the auburn cliffs of the Jurassic Coast. The intimidating cliffs are made up of layers of clay, limestone, and mud. This concoction entrapped marine life and dinosaurs over 190 million years ago. Soon after Mary’s first dinosaur discovery, the ichthyosaur, she found a larger specimen that was over 17 feet long. So how was she so successful at uncovering these incredible fossils?
First, Mary had to have a keen eye and know what was worth investigating. She could see just a glint of a tiny fragment in the mud and knew it was a dinosaur bone. She kept detailed drawings as the bones began to appear from the rock.
The second step involved a significant danger—that of carefully extracting the bones from the dicey cliffs. Often prone to landslides, she repeatedly risked her life. In one narrow escape, she lost her dog Tray, and was utterly devastated
Thirdly, she learned from her father how to use tools to cut away the rock and preserve the finding.
Mary knew dinosaurs fetched higher prices than other finds, and often the dinosaur bones were purchased by wealthy male scientists. They would give lectures, write scientific papers, and earn a comfortable living—and not give her credit. To be sure, many of the scientists respected and befriended Mary, and several helped her financially through some rough times when the cliffs were stingy, but at the time, she did not receive the admiration she was due.
The large ichthyosaur Mary had discovered went to London on display and was one of the biggest attractions in the city. Now the word was out…but just what was it? It took scientists five years to finally name it. In addition, they were not aware of the concept of “extinct” and were secretly hoping someone would catch a live one. While these male scientists continued to take credit for her work, Mary continued to find other new dinosaurs, each of which propelled the study of evolution ahead immeasurably.
In Lyme Regis you can see Mary’s plesiosaur and take note of the superb, detailed work of extracting the bones from rock into a magnificent display. After her spectacular find, the top scientist in the world declared it a fake due to its long neck. Most mammals, including humans and giraffes, have seven vertebrae; Mary’s discovery had over 70. She only had two years of formal education, but she stood her ground against the scientific community, and was eventually vindicated.
In May 2019, my sister and brother joined me on a Fossil Walk in Lyme Regis. It is one of the few places in the world where you can look for fossils and keep them. The geologist who guided the walk shared to us that in fifteen years no one has ever returned empty-handed. On our tour, a lady found a dinosaur vertebrae and I found a rare double ammonite.
Yes, it was cold, wet, and windy, but to me it was my version of heaven, even the 1,000-year-old dump near the cliffs edge, where just the day before someone found a Roman coin. The tide shares with each wave eons of gifts: shells, sea glass, silverware, and pieces of everyday living. Given its proximity to chert stone, even arrowheads are a welcomed find.
At age 27, Mary managed to buy her own fossil shop, which has been rebuilt complete with the bay windows. It was wonderful to visit the shop and admire polished fossils, which I purchased with glee.
Finally, after 200 years, Mary Anning is getting her due. She spent most of her life on the church poor list, but never stopped pursuing her love of science and fossils. Even though scientists of her age did not see her as their equal, by the end of her life, she was a respected expert, receiving such customers as the King of Saxony to purchase fossils from her incredible collection. And this respect for Mary has continued to the present: museums across the world are updating their collections and recording her as the discoverer. She is now considered the “World’s Most Famous Fossil Hunter.”
Before heading home back to the States, I joined others in leaving a fossil on her grave. Still with an abundance of fossils, I pitched all my travel clothes, and carefully protected the rocks in my socks. While I thought it very practical, airport security and customs did not see it that way. I am sure it was my Snake Stone spell that prompted them in the end to clear me.
I want to close with this quote from Henry Miller, which I believe best describes Mary’s curious mind and passionate dedication to science in a time when the odds were forever against her: “Develop an interest in life as you see it; the people, things, literature, music—the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself.”
Learn more about beach fossils:
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This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine March/April 2021 issue.
Mary Anning is not recorded as ever having found a dinosaur fossil. The ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and pterosaurus she did find are not dinosaurs.