Mary's father Richard was a cabinet maker who supplemented his income by mining the coastal cliff-side fossil beds near Lyme Regis, then selling his finds to tourists. Richard Anning moved to Lyme from Colyton in Devon. Aged 27 he was in Blandford, where he married Mary Moore on 8 August 1793. Returning to Lyme, the couple lived in a house built on the town’s bridge, and attended the local Congregational Church, where their children were baptized. Soon after their marriage a daughter Mary was born, she was followed by a second daughter, Martha, who died almost at once, then by a son Joseph, in 1796.
A second son Henry died as an infant early in 1798. Horror struck towards the end of the year when the eldest child Mary was burned to death at home, either sitting too close to the fire, or falling into it. When another daughter was born the following May, she was given the name of her dead sister, Mary. It was she who survived the lightning strike in 1800. At least four further children followed: Henry, 1801; Percival, 1803; Elizabeth, 1804; and Richard, 1809. All died within a couple of years of birth, leaving only two surviving children, Joseph and Mary, when their father Richard died in 1810, aged just 44. When he died of tuberculosis the Anning family was left without support. Mary and her brother Joseph began collecting fossils full-time in an effort to earn some income.
Fossil collecting was in vogue in the late 18th century and early 19th century, at first as a pastime akin to stamp collecting but gradually transforming into a science as the importance of fossils to geology and biology became understood. Anning catered to the commercial side of the field, selling her finds. She soon forged relationships within the scientific community, whose passion for fossils grew to be a major source of income for her.
The cause of this connection was one of Anning's first discoveries, the skeleton of an ichthyosaur, in 1811, a few months after her father's death. Her brother had discovered the skull of what appeared to be a large crocodile a year earlier. The rest of the skeleton was not to be found at first, but Mary located it after a storm scoured away a portion of the cliff containing it. This was the first complete skeleton of an ichthyosaur ever discovered, though not the first ichthyosaur fossil ever, as the genus had been described in 1699 from fragments discovered in Wales. Nevertheless, it was an important find, and was soon described in the Transactions of the Royal Society. Anning was 12 years old at the time of her discovery. She went on to find two other distinct species of Ichthyosaur.
As her reputation grew, Anning came to the attention of Thomas Birch, a wealthy fossil collector. Disturbed by the poverty of Mary and her family he arranged for the sale of his own fossil collection, the proceeds of which (some £400) were given to the Annings. Put on a sure (if somewhat austere) financial footing for the first time in a decade, Mary carried on with her fossil collecting even after her brother gained employment as an upholsterer.
Her next major discovery was a real first, the first-ever skeleton of a plesiosaur in 1821. The fossil she found was subsequently described, by William Conybeare as Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus and is the type specimen (holotype) of the species, which itself is the type species of the genus. She found an 'unrivalled specimen' of Dapedium politum, a ray-finned fish, as described in 1828. She discovered an important fossil of a pterosaur, a Pterodactylus macronyx (later renamed by Richard Owen Dimorphodon macronyx), the first found outside Germany and thought to be the first complete skeleton.
Those were the three finds that made her mark on history, but she continued collecting for the remainder of her life, making numerous other contributions to early paleontology. In her late thirties she was granted an annuity by the British Association for the Advancement of Science in return for her efforts. Anning died at the age of 47, of breast cancer. A few months earlier she had been made an honorary member of the Geological Society of London despite being ineligible for regular membership due to the sexist mores of the time.
Taken all together, Mary Anning's discoveries became key pieces of evidence for extinction. Until her time it was widely believed that animals did not become extinct; any oddities found were explained away as still living somewhere in an unexplored region of the earth. The bizarre nature of the fossils found by Anning struck a heavy blow against this argument, and set the stage for real understanding of life in earlier geologic ages.
For a time after her death, Mary dropped into obscurity but, in recent decades, she has been rediscovered. After her death, a eulogy was read at the Geological Society, 'some members' of which subsequently contributed to a stained-glass window to her memory, in the parish church of St Michael the Archangel, the Society having failed to elect her to membership during her lifetime, possibly as a result of latter-day ‘genderism’. The inscription reads: "This window is sacred to the memory of Mary Anning of this parish, who died 9 March AD 1847 and is erected by the vicar and some members of the Geological Society of London in commemoration of her usefulness in furthering the science of geology, as also of her benevolence of heart and integrity of life." (It depicts the corporal works of mercy, i.e. feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting prisoners and visiting the sick.)
Mary Anning is believed to be the source of the old tongue-twister, "She sells sea shells by the sea shore."
In 2005, a Mary Anning 'facsimile' was created at the Natural History Museum as one of a number of notable gallery characters to patrol its displays. She is thus among other luminaries including Carl Linnaeus, Dorothea Bate, and William Smith.
Writer John Fowles in "The French Lieutenant's Woman" (Ch. 8) notes: "One of the meanest disgraces of British palaeontology is that though many scientists of the day gratefully used her finds to establish their own reputation, not one native type bears the name anningii".