A highly intelligent, empirically minded fossil collector and paleontologist at the beginning of a century marked by enormous advances in the practice and philosophy of science, Mary Anning was screwed from the get-go. Poor, a religious minority, and (worst of all) a woman, she was officially shut out by the British scientific establishment despite discovering the world’s first correctly identified ichthyosaur skeleton at the age of twelve.
Regardless of official approval, she doggedly continued digging up weird things around her hometown of Lyme Regis, becoming known for her meticulous attention to detail and rigorously scientific mindset. Soon, geologists and paleontologists across the Western world knew her by reputation, either by purchasing the fossils she sold (rarely, if ever, crediting her discoveries) or by visiting her to talk shop, unanimously finding her to be remarkably up-to-date on the scientific literature of the time despite receiving almost no formal education and barely having enough money for journal subscriptions.
Anning was only published in the scientific press once, when she wrote a letter to the Magazine of Natural History disputing the “discovery” of a new genus of prehistoric shark based on her own findings. Her unofficial correspondence, on the other hand, numbered readers such as pioneering geologist Charles Lyell and Darwin mentor Adam Sedgwick.
She died in 1847 of breast cancer, meriting a eulogy from the Geographical Society of London (which didn’t even admit women until 1904), a glowing article in 1865 by Charles Dickens, a mention in 2010 by the Royal Society as one of the ten British women having the greatest impact on history, and a tongue-twister concerning her day-to-day business of selling marine fossils: “She sells sea shells by the sea shore.”