She sells seashells by the sea shore. It’s famous as a schoolyard tongue twister, but it has its roots in history. “She” was Mary Anning, a paleontologist before people really knew what dinosaurs were, who made some of her biggest discoveries before she was even a teenager.
Mary was born in 1799. Her parents were a cabinetmaker and his wife who lived in Lyme Regis, a vacation town in Dorset, England known for its beautiful ocean-facing cliffs. Mary’s dad wasn’t just a cabinetmaker, though—he earned extra money for his family by gathering and selling special souvenirs to travelers: little stones they called “trinkets.”
From an early age, Mary would go out trinket-hunting with her dad. She learned all the ins and outs of finding the best ones. There were a few different kinds, all with folksy names that locals had given them many years before: snake stones, devil’s fingers, verteberries. It turns out that these trinkets weren’t your average cool piece of rock, though. They were fossils of creatures that had lived in Lyme Regis millions of years ago.
Mary and her brother Joseph were forced to set out selling trinkets on their own after their father died in 1810. They would go out to the cliffs every day to look. One day in 1811, after a heavy storm, Joseph discovered something that was both amazing and terrifying: a skull, four feet long. Mary was sure it belonged to some kind of sea dragon. Only the skull could be found, but Mary made up her mind to seek out the rest of this creature.
It took months and months, but finally, she did—all seventeen feet of it. It turns out that Mary had discovered the body of an ichthyosaurus, which was something that scientists in London and elsewhere were just starting to formulate theories about: the “terrible lizard,” also known as a dinosaur. Scientists began flocking to the town to see what there was to be discovered. They were all fascinated by the creatures, of course, but also by the young girl who bravely climbed out onto the cliffs seeking fossils.
Mary risked her life fossil-hunting on an almost daily basis until her death in 1847. She didn’t get as much recognition as she perhaps deserved when she was alive, but now we know her for her extraordinary achievements. She discovered two major species of dinosaur, the ichthyosaurus and the plesiosaurus, and helped to form the then brand-new study of paleontology—and much of this was accomplished when she was a very young girl. In 1865, none other than Charles Dickens himself wrote about Mary: “The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.”
But of course, the most enduring words about Mary Anning are those that are said three times fast:
She sells seashells on the seashore
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure
So if she sells seashells on the seashore
Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.