It’s International Women’s Day today, and in Lyme Regis, there’s one woman who instantly springs to mind as worthy of celebrating – in fact the Royal Society put her in the top ten influential women in science.

Mary Anning was born and raised in Lyme Regis, and made a living (just) collecting fossils from the seashore, and selling them in her parents fossil shop. I won’t go into the whole story, as it has been beautifully told elsewhere already, but after finding an icthyosaur when she was just 12 years old she went on to make so many discoveries of species new to Britain and new details of known species that she started to question the received wisdom and come to completely new ideas about what these creatures may have been.

Mary Anning’s sketch of a pleisiosaur

Being female, she had no chance to present her findings to the professional scientists of the day, and had to rely on male friends to represent her, never finding the recognition she deserved in her own lifetime. Indeed, she is quoted as having said “The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone.”

This month, Lyme Regis is being taken back 200 years by set designers recreating Georgian streetscapes for the filming of ‘Ammonite”, a feature film that will star Oscar nominees Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan as Mary Anning and a wealthy Londoner who comes down to Lyme Regis to convalesce. We don’t know any details of the plot, but the phrases ‘a fictional romance’ and ‘intense relationship’ have been oft repeated, so expect some love interest.

On International Womens’ Day, I can’t help being a bit sad that Mary’s incredible story (she survived a lightning strike as an infant, and being half-buried in a landslip whilst fossil hunting) is not enough, and that as a woman she has to be seen in the context of a relationship, but maybe that’s just me being miserable. However, there are lots of letters between her & some very close female friends, including Francis Bell, and it may be that her ‘spinster’ image would be viewed differently today.

If you’d like to find out more, there is lots of information about Mary Anning at Lyme Regis Museum, and her grave is just a hundred yards away in the grounds of St Michael’s Church. Mary died of breast cancer aged just 47. She was a remarkable woman, and her story is certainly worthy of Hollywood.

Mary Anning at work, by Henry de la Beche

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