Mary Anning is the greatest.

At one year old, she was hit by lightning. It killed the three women holding her and/or standing near her at the time, and she stopped breathing and was unresponsive. But somebody dunked her in hot water later (CUTTING EDGE MEDICAL PRACTICE) and she came back to life.

(Everybody said she seemed a little different after that.)

Mary Anning spent her whole life collecting fossils. Political instability in mainland Europe made it dangerous to vacation in places like France, so English vacationers turned to the Dorset coast as a popular vacation spot, and the influx of tourists made selling fossil curios a viable business for Anning. She clambered about the collapsing cliffs in search of shells and bones.

(I have visited her cliffs. These are her cliffs right here. I took this photo.)

The unstable cliffs killed her dad and her dog. Which made her sad. But she kept on going, and transformed our understanding of the ancient world in the process.

She discovered (with her brother) the first icthyosaur when she was twelve years old. And she discovered the first two plesiosaur skeletons, which were so very strange at the time that she was accused of forging them. While other scientists had been unearthing fossil hyenas, fossil elephants, fossil rhinos (all of which had familiar modern counterparts), Anning’s fossils were pretty much the first large fossil animals with absolutely no modern analogue at all. Her finds introduced to the world the idea that an “age of reptiles” had preceded the current “age of mammals”, many years before anyone would learn about “dinosaurs” or talk seriously about “evolution”.

Though she didn’t always get credit for her own discoveries (she would illustrate and scientifically describe some of her specimens, but male scientists formally published all of them and occasionally forgot to mention her), the British Association for the Advancement of Science paid her a pension toward the end of her life for her many contributions to geology. And while the Geological Society would not admit women as fellows until 60 years after her death, she was made an honorary member of the Society in her last years of life, and was the first woman ever honored and eulogized by the Society upon her death.


If you want to read about Anning’s life, I have two books to recommend. For lovers of nonfiction, Terrible Lizard gives a great historical account of Anning, plus several other early “undergroundologists,” weaving their stories together in interesting ways. For fiction connoisseurs, try Remarkable Creatures, a novelized account of not only Anning’s life, but her (real-life) fossil collecting friend, Elizabeth Philpot.