Remember when you were young, struggling to say "She sells sea shells by the sea shore ?" Do you know that this tongue-twister was written about a real person? Her name was Mary Anning and her story is truly inspirational. She began life in grinding poverty. Born in 1799, her life was short and difficult but when she died 48 years later, this barely literate Englishwoman was a world famous Paleontologist.




Her father was a carpenter. She was born in Dorset, the area known as "the cradle of England's geology." Millions of years ago, Dorset was covered by the sea, leaving layers of prehistoric fossils in the cliffs around her home village of Lyme Regis. She got an early introduction to paleobotany. To supplement his meager income, Anning often took his wife, son and daughter to the cliffs to search for fossils, which he sold to visitors for a few pennies.




Her father died when Mary was 11. Her mother took her children out of school so they could work full time as fossil hunters. Mary sold their finds from a stand on the beach, inspiring some unknown wit to compose the "she sells sea shells" quatrain.




1812 was a banner year. Mary unearthed and reconstructed the fossilized skeleton of an Ichthyosaur, a prehistoric animal that had lived 95 million years ago during the Mesozoic Period. Her mother sold it for 23 pounds, about $2,500 today. Her discovery is now exhibited in the British Museum of Natural History. Ichthyosaur is "fish reptile" in Greek but it was an air breathing marine animal.




The Anning family continued to struggle, even selling their furniture to buy food, but Mary's discoveries and her phenomenal ability to identify and reconstruct fossilized bones were attracting attention. Her name and comments were quoted in several books. To encourage her, a well known geologist, Gideon Mantell, began to furnish some financial support. The final accolade came from the Royal Geological Society in London. The Society authorized an annual pension saying that Mary knew more about the infant science of Paleontology "than anyone else in the kingdom."




Despite her failing health, Mary kept on digging. In 1823 she found and excavated the skeleton of a Plesiosaur ("near lizard" in Greek) a marine reptile from the Mesozoic Era. The air breathing reptile lived in the ocean but probably laid it's eggs in the sand as turtles do today. That specimen sold for 100 pounds.




In 1828 she was credited with finding the first Petrodactyl ever found in Britain. Petrodactyl means "winged finger." It is a flying reptile from the Triassic Period. Some of Mary's letters remain in which she shared her knowledge with scientists across Europe. When the King of Saxony paid a visit to Great Britain, he came to Lyme Regis to meet the gifted but untrained scientist. Mary signed autographs for the royal party. She also proudly proclaimed that she, like the visiting king, were "well known throughout the whole of Europe." She died of breast cancer three years later.




Historian Sir Crispin Tickell wrote this about Mary Anning. He sums up her life and work with these words: "She was an independent minded person of great intelligence ... tough, practical, complex, generous but sometimes prickly ... who helped lay the foundation of a new science of the earth."




Instead of a recipe here is all of Mary's quatrain:




"She sells sea shells by the sea shore,




The shells she sells are sea shells, I'm sure,




For if she sells sea shells on the sea shore,




Then I'm sure she sell sea shore shells."