Over a century ago, the world's greatest beachcomber prowled the ocean-washed cliffs of Lyme Regis. Top hat firmly in place, Mary Anning collected and identified fossils from England's eroding cliffs during the dawn of our understanding of dinosaurs. Today is her birthday.

One of the First Palaeontologists Wore a Top Hat on the Beach

Mary Anning at work. Image credit: Henry De la Beche

Mary Anning was born in Dorset, England. Her father collected and sold fossils as a side-business to his carpentry, taking Mary and her brother Joseph along to scour the cliffs for finds. When he died, she stepped up to run the fossil business as the primary form of income for the family.

My favourite painting of Anning depicts her layered in rough clothes, hammer in hand, with a top hat and sturdy boots. Her attire is similar to geologists worn today, although her choice of fieldhat is a bit formal by modern standards. The best theory is that repeatedly coating the felted wool with shellac made for a very stylish helmet. Or, with the inevitable mud and dust earned by any field hat, not so much stylish necessary given the unstable cliffs pelting rocks while revealing new fossils to her.

The more fossils Anning found, the better her understanding was of how the bones fit together. Although she never undertook formal training, her ability to extract, prepare, and assemble fossils, and her knowledge of identification and anatomy brought scientists knocking on her door asking for help. Her role in discovering and consulting on fossils was not formally recognized, and she was denied membership in the Geological Society of London.

One of the First Palaeontologists Wore a Top Hat on the Beach

Today's Google Doodle is in honour of Mary Anning's 215th birthday. Image credit: Google.

Mary sold her fossils to wealthy collectors, universities, and public museums. In retrospect, this was the first of many conflicts between private collectors and academic research, as her need to eat and support her family made the fossil's commercial value equally as important as their scientific significance for the development of palaeontology.

One of the First Palaeontologists Wore a Top Hat on the Beach

Mary Anning and her little dog Tray at the Golden Cap outcrop. Image credit: Natural History Museum, London

The fossils from the Lyme Regis cliff were Jurassic in origin, with Mary finding molluscs, fossil fish, plesiosaurs, and ichthysaurs. She and her brother found their first ichthysaur when she was 12. A few years later, hers was the first plesiosaur collected. The paper describing the new species thanks the man who purchased the fossil, but has no mention of the woman who discovered and assembled it. This lack of recognition was an ongoing problem for Anning throughout her life. She was acknowledged for her assistance in first recognizing the nature of coprolites, fossilized dung.

She was frequently accompanied by her little dog Tray. Finding fossils is most effective when winter storms erode the cliffs, revealing new bones. This also means that she was out dodging waves and falling rocks. She had a few near-misses with landslides, but Tray wasn't so lucky.

Mary Anning is virtually unknown outside of palaeontology, but she's downright famous compared to other women in geology from her era.An article on The Guardian lays out the problem neatly. A single photograph titled "The Geologists" features a pair in female and male attire in front of an outcrop, but doesn't list their identities.

One of the First Palaeontologists Wore a Top Hat on the Beach

Geologists in Devon. Salt print: William Henry Fox Talbot. Photograph: The National Media Museum, Bradford

The salt print from 1843 is the right time to be Mary Anning, but it could also be any of her contemporaries: Elizabeth Philpot, Etheldred Benett, Mary Fairfax Somerville, Elizabeth Carne, or Barbara the Marchioness of Hastings. Or it could be someone else entirely whose name didn't make it into history at all.

Mary Anning died of breast cancer in 1847. Her bones are not fossilized, although she probably wished they could be. Instead, she lives on in a tongue-twister, starting, "She sells seashells on the seashore..."

Observation Deck has a different-and-awesome take on Mary Anning. To read more about Mary Anning, I recommend this blog by Paleonerdish, a history hosted by UC Berkeley, a BBC video, or the Natural History Museum biography.