Mary Anning

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Do you believe anyone is capable of an amazing discovery, regardless of class or gender?

Mary Anning did.

Mary Anning was born in 1799, in a coastal village in Dorset, England. Hers was a working-class family and existence was tough. Short of food and creature comforts, the family also suffered through frequent seaside storms. These were sometimes so severe, Mary and her family had to climb out the second-floor windows of their home to escape the flooding. 

But it is said that every storm brings a silver lining. And, indeed, the wind and rain brought good fortune to the Annings in addition to hardship. This luck sent young Mary on a path to both career and accidental fame...

The storms washed away layers of earth on the nearby coastal cliffs -- especially at a geological formation named Blue Lias -- exposing fossils that the Anning family would mine and sell to visiting tourists. They made their first major fossil discovery -- a four-foot ichthyosaur skull -- when Mary was just 12 years old. A few months later, Mary found the entire skeleton. When the family sold it to a London collector for 23 pounds, she was hooked. 

Mary continued to prospect for fossils for years to follow. She mined in the winters, when storms were frequent, accompanied by her terrier Tray. It was dangerous work, and she narrowly missed being crushed by many landslides several times. (Sadly, Tray was not so lucky.) 

Mary found mainly invertebrate fossils on her expeditions, especially ammonite and belemnite shells. Interestingly, it was her selling of the shell-fossils later inspired the popular tongue-twister, "She sells seashells by the sea shore." 

As she found more and more fascinating fossils and remarkable skeletons, Mary’s reputation grew. She uncovered the first complete Plesiosaurus as well as flying reptiles called pterosaurs. Before she knew it, famous scientists were flocking to Dorset to visit and discuss her findings with her.

Though she had a limited education, Mary Anning worked diligently to keep up with the scientific readings in the fields of archeology and paleontology. But being a woman and from working-class roots hampered her integration into Britain's upper-class scientific circles. Not to be stopped, she often wrote publicly to challenge findings she did not agree with, which only drew male archaeologists and paleontologists to her Dorset doorstep. 

It is thanks both to her remarkable discoveries as well as her thorough knowledge, that Mary Anning became a well-known figure in Europe. Her contributions to the field of paleontology are still well remembered today. Though she never received the recognition due her in life, she is today regarded as one of the most influential women in the history of science.

Mary Anning contributed huge discoveries to the paleontological field, despite a lack of education and institutional support. That's why she's a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero. Many thanks to Heather Kilgour of both London and New Zealand, for bringing her to our attention.

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