Exemplar: Mary Anning

Geek alert: this post may contain words that you cannot pronounce. Don’t feel like the Lone Ranger. 

One thing that never appealed to me: science. Another thing that never appealed to me: getting dirty. Paleontologists deal with both, digging up fossils and trying to figure out where they fit into the world’s (ancient) history. 

So my hat’s off to Mary Anning, who absolutely rocked–yes, I actually said that–as a paleontologist, far ahead of her time. Happy birthday, Ms. Anning…

Note: A Mary Anning biopic staring Kate Winslet has been produced. Watch for it at your local theatre or online. 

Born in 1799, Mary Anning overcame the lack a formal education to emerge as one of the greatest fossil pioneers and one of the world’s foremost authorities on paleontology. In order to read works of Georges Cuvier, the eminent naturalist and paleontologist, she taught herself French. 

In 1821, Ms. Anning found three fossilized ichthyosaur skeletons, ranging from 5 to 20 feet long.  Ms. Anning was now working at the forefront of a new science utilizing fossils to better understand the earth’s natural history.

Collector George Cumberland described Ms. Anning’s 5 foot ichthyosaur this way: “the very finest specimen of a fossil Ichthyosaurus ever found in Europe… we owe entirely to the persevering industry of a young female fossilist, of the name of Anning… and her dangerous employment. To her exertions we owe nearly all the fine specimens of Ichthyosauri of the great collections…”

At the tender age of 24, Ms. Anning made the first discovery and drawing of a complete Plesiosaurus skeleton. The discovery was so incredible that many scientists refused to believe such a creature had ever existed. 

Initially declaring the find a fake, Georges Cuvier later changed his tune after carefully examining the fossilized findings and declared: “It is the most amazing creature ever discovered”.

The discovery of Plesiosaurus secured Ms. Anning’s reputation. Nevertheless but she continued to work relentlessly. In 1828, she discovered the ‘Ink bag of Belemnoidea’ fossils, ten-armed creatures that could eject ink into the water, like squid. Remarkably, Ms. Anning found that the ink in the bags had survived fossilization and could still be used in pens.  Paying homage to her, artists in her hometown began using Belemnoidea ink to draw pictures of fossils found in the area. 

Ms. Anning also found examples of fossilized animal feces, and, breaking some open, found bones and fish scales inside. This discovery gave scientists a window into the diets of animals that lived hundreds of millions of years ago.

In 1829, Ms. Anning found a second Plesiosaur fossil, even more complete than her groundbreaking discovery of 1823. In 1830, Ms. Anning discovered one of her most complete and beautiful fossilized creatures – Plesiosaurus macrocephalus, a cast of which is on display at the Natural History Museum in Paris, France.

While her discoveries formed the basis of much of our early understanding of prehistoric animal life, and her advice directed much of the work done by her contemporaries in the field, she hardly received her due during her lifetime.

Her contributions were eventually recognized: almost 200 years after her death, the Royal Society published a roster of the ten British women who most influenced science, and Mary Anning’s name was on the list.

“Mary Anning is probably the most important unsung (or inadequately sung) collecting force in the history of paleontology.” – Stephen Jay Gould


2 thoughts on “Exemplar: Mary Anning

  1. This connects with your next post, where you suggest the use of the preface “I was fortunate enough to…” Ms. Anning was fortunate to survive childhood, but used her full potential in adulthood. Quite inspiring.

    As you write, recognition took nearly 200 years. But then, if we could come back in two centuries, we’d be surprised (or not at all) that our contemporaries who’ll be remembered aren’t necessarily the ones that make the headlines today.

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