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Mary Anning

In the world of fossils, there's one woman whose discoveries of Jurassic marine fossils changed the way science viewed the prehistoric world. Mary Anning was born on May 21, 1799 and became world renowned for her work in Dorset, a county in Southwest England where she lived.


Mary Anning

When Mary was just twelve years old, she and her brother, Joseph discovered the first identifiable ichthyosaur skeleton. From there, her discoveries only continued to grow, and she was responsible for the findings of several fossils that had never been seen previously.

She found the first two plesiosaur skeletons, the first pterosaur skeleton outside an area in Germany, and a variety of fish fossils. She discovered that certain prehistoric creatures were similar to modern day cephalopods, due to her finding fossilized ink sacs.

In 1833 she nearly lost her life searching for fossils in Dorset's Blue Lias cliffs area, which was prone to landslides during the winter. These landslides helped make her work a little easier, as they helped bring new fossils to the surface. However the risk involved was great, and she narrowly avoided death during one such landslide that ended up killing her dog.

Mary came from a lifetime of hardship. Her father was a cabinetmaker, and her mother was constantly grieving the death of her children. In total, the Anning family had ten children, but only Mary and Joseph survived childhood.
In fact, Mary was actually named for her sister, Mary, who passed away at the age of four, when her clothes caught fire from nearby wood shavings. Mary was raised during a time when food shortages were common, as the price of wheat had tripled during the Napoleonic and French Revolutionary Wars.


Mary Anning with Fossils

Also, the Anning family were known dissenters, which means they didn't follow the Church of England, and could actually be subjected to persecution. Mary's work in fossil discovery didn't help, as it was a time in England where the majority believed in the Bible's story of creation. Yet Mary's work raised questions about the age of the Earth, and the history of life therein.

It would seem natural that Mary's discoveries should have skyrocketed her to fame amongst the science community, but instead, due to her social status and the fact that she was a woman, she was prevented from becoming an active member of the science community.

She was eligible to join the Geological Society of London, and often times she didn't receive full credit for her work. However, she was well known in the geological community across Britain, Europe, and America, and was often consulted about different areas of geology.

The only piece of her work that was ever published was an excerpt, from a letter Anning had written to the editor of the Magazine of Natural History, in which she disputed the claims made within one of the magazine's articles. Anning's work has since been celebrated in various ways, including a special Google doodle on her 215th birthday.

 

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