GEOLOGIST and polar explorer Tom Sharpe was most excited about his move to East Lothian when he discovered a Jurassic ammonite at Gosford House.

The scientist, who moved to Haddington two years ago, has published The Fossil Woman, a biography of the “most famous person many of us had never heard of” – fossilist Mary Anning – drawing on his own expertise and love of the subject.

Mary Anning was born in Lyme Regis, Dorset, in 1799, the daughter of a cabinet maker.

Her father supplemented his meagre income by selling fossils found on the Lyme Regis coast to tourists, and taught his children to do the same.

He died when Mary was aged 11 but she and her older brother Joseph continued to find, clean and sell the fossils.

But Mary went further, studying her finds and learning about geology and palaeontology, at a time when such sciences were still in their infancy.

Tom said: “She was quite exceptional.

“She wasn’t the only woman collecting fossils at the time but almost all the other women who were involved in palaeontology in some way were middle class, or upper class or gentry; they were amateurs, or many of them were married to geologists.

“But Mary was poor, working class and she was selling fossils.

“So she was arguably one of the first professional geologists in the world.”

Tom told the Courier: “People were coming to Lyme Regis to see her, to learn from her, to buy specimens for museums and universities and for their own private collections.”

Tom, originally from Rutherglen, studied geology at the University of Glasgow before moving to Wales and becoming the curator of palaeontology at National Museum Wales.

He has taught geology at the Universities of Cardiff and Bristol; and has worked in expedition travel since 2007, travelling mainly in the Arctic, Antarctic, North Atlantic and Patagonia.

He was approached to write the biography of Mary Anning by The Dovecote Press publishing company, which wanted to set the record straight ahead of a biopic of the geologist, called Ammonite and starring Kate Winslet, which is due for a big screen release next year.

The film, directed by Francis Lee, alludes to a love affair between Mary and Charlotte Murchison – which Tom said is unlikely to have happened.

“Charlotte Murchison is portrayed as being a young woman suffering from melancholy,” Tom said, “and actually Charlotte was 11 years older than Mary Anning.

“And then there’s an odd reference in a letter from Mary to Charlotte as to how attractive she finds [Charlotte’s] husband.

“Mary’s talking about reports she had heard about Murchison giving a lecture somewhere, and how great it was, and this Mary could believe, ‘because he’s the handsomest piece of flesh and blood I ever saw!’”

Whatever the fiction built up around Mary Anning, Tom believes she was one of the most significant women in the history of Britain.

He said: “She certainly hasn’t had the recognition that she deserves.

“I mean, she should be up there with the great women of the 19th century: people like Florence Nightingale and Jane Austen.”

And as for that East Lothian ammonite? It’s a Jurassic fossil from Portland, Dorset, the sort that is quarried “to use as a garden ornament”, said Tom, and can be found embedded in a block of limestone in the ground next to Gosford House’s curling house.

“I was absolutely gobsmacked to find a Jurassic ammonite in East Lothian,” said Tom.

“Unfortunately it’s not in situ so I can’t make my scientific reputation on that basis!”

The Fossil Woman: A Life Of Mary Anning is available to buy now via