On May 21, 1799, British fossil collector, dealer, and palaeontologist Mary Anning was born. She became known around the world for important finds she made in Jurassic marine fossil beds in the cliffs along the English Channel at Lyme Regis in the county of Dorset in Southwest England. Her work contributed to fundamental changes in scientific thinking about prehistoric life and the history of the Earth.
Mary Anning was born in Dorset, England and her father had often taken Mary and her brother Joseph to his fossil-hunting trips from which he found pieces to sell to tourists. When her father passed away, Mary continued the fossil-finding trips near the sea. Her fossil hunt turned out especially fruitful when the tide was low, but still, collecting fossils remained a risky business. After a while, Mary Anning’s family established a good reputation as fossil hunters and it supported the family financially. Around 1817, the family met Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Birch, a fossil collector who later on became the supporter of the family. He attributed the major fossil discoveries to Mary Anning’s family and even sold some of his most valuable collections of fossils to those who would buy them to help the family. To this day, it is hard to trace, which of the found fossils can be really attributed to Mary Anning because museums usually credited the individuals who donated the fossils to them. For instance, she is credited with the discovery of the Ichthyosaurus fossils, but indeed it is believed that her brother had found the skull of the beast and she had contributed by finding the rest of it.
Unfortunately for Mary Anning, women were not officially allowed to attend the university and despite the fact that she had made so many wonderful discoveries, she was often not properly credited in the publications. However, this did not apply to everyone. The famous paleontologist Louis Agassiz visited her hometown around 1834. He had thanked Mary Anning and a friend of hers named Elizabeth Philpot in his book called “Studies of Fossil Fish.”
In 1847, Mary Anning died from breast cancer at the age of only 47. Charles Dickens wrote an article about her life in February 1865 in his literary magazine ‘All the Year Round’ that emphasised the difficulties she had overcome, especially the scepticism of her fellow townspeople. He ended the article with: “The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.
At yovisto, you can learn more about ‘What can fossils teach us?‘ in a lecture by Paul Sereno.
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