Anning, Mary (DNB01)

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ANNING, MARY (1799–1847), discoverer of the ichthyosaurus, daughter of Richard Anning, a carpenter and vendor of natural curiosities at Lyme Regis, was born in that town in May 1799. On 19 Aug. 1800 she narrowly escaped death by lightning. She is presumed to have had some rudimentary education at the parish school, and seems to have learnt from her father how to collect fossils, a pursuit she began to turn to good account after his death in 1810, earning a livelihood thereby.

It was in 1811 that Mary Anning made the discovery to which she owes her fame. She noticed some bones projecting from the face of a cliff near Lyme, traced the position of the skeleton with a hammer, and then hired men to dig out the lias block in which it was embedded. The skeleton, thirty feet long, is now in the British Museum; its discovery created a sensation among geologists, and a long controversy took place before the name Ichthyosaurus was agreed upon, and its position in natural history determined. This discovery Mary Anning followed up by finding the first specimen of Plesiosaurus, and in 1828 of Pterodactylus (Woodward, Geology, 1887, p. 262; Owen, Palæontology, pp. 220 sqq.; Nicholson and Lydekker, Palæontology, ii. 1124). Owing to her skill and care many fine examples of Ichthyosauri and Plesiosauri were discovered and preserved. She also discovered the pens and ink sacs of fossil Loligo. Among those whose studies she assisted, and whose collections she enriched, were Sir E. Home, Dr. W. Buckland, the Rev. W. D. Conybeare, Sir H. de la Beche, Colonel Birch, Lord Enniskillen, and Sir P. Egerton. A small government grant was obtained for her from Lord Melbourne, and this, supplemented from other sources, procured her a small annuity.

She died from cancer in the breast on 9 March 1847, and was buried at Lyme, in the church of which the Geological Society fifteen years afterwards placed a memorial window to her. The local guide book remarked that ‘her death was in a pecuniary sense a great loss to the place, as her presence attracted a large number of distinguished visitors’ (Beauties of Lyme Regis). Among them was the king of Saxony, of whose visit an account is given by Carl Gustav Carus in his ‘England und Schottland im Jahre 1844,’ Berlin, 1845.

A posthumous portrait in pastel, executed in 1850 by B. J. M. Donne, hangs in the apartments of the Geological Society at Burlington House.

[Quarterly Journal Geol. Soc. vol. iv. p. xxiv; Roberts's Hist. of Lyme Regis, 1834, p. 284; All the Year Round, xiii. 60–3; private information.]

B. B. W.