Saturday, October 23, 2010

Mary Anning and ancient bones

It keeps happening! I keep bumping into important historical figures I've never heard of! (This retirement business is hard on the ego.)

I refer to Mary Anning. Heard of her? No? Well, then you clearly aren't a paleontologist.

Anning (1799-1847) was a poor, working-class woman who lived in the resort town Lyme Regis in Dorset, along England's southern coast. Like her carpenter father before her, who supplemented his income by selling fossils to wealthy tourists, she spent her life as a fossil hunter. It helped that her village was near cliffs of limestone and shale formed some 200 million years ago - cliffs that kept crumbling down from winter rains and high tides, constantly exposing new fossils. It also helped that she was a natural-born scientist, despite her lack of social standing, education, and being a woman during a time when women weren't exactly accepted by the gentleman scientists of her day. Yet she knew more about fossils - and what they meant - than most of her scientific contemporaries.

Anning was one of 10 children, of whom only Mary and her brother Joseph survived to adulthood. She learned to read and write in Sunday school - that was it except for her lifelong study of the literature on long-dead animals. (As difficult as that was for a poor, lower-class woman to do.) When she was 12, a year after her father died, sending the family deeper into poverty, she and her brother discovered the four-foot head of an ichthyosaur - one of the big, nasty creatures that inhabited the seas 200 million years ago. Over the next few months, Mary recovered the rest of the bones - all 17 feet of them. The find, sold to one of the gentleman scientists, sent shock waves into a society that largely believed extinction was impossible because it raised questions about the perfection of God's creation.

As the years passed, she discovered fossils of plesiosaurs, fossil fish and pterosaurs that basically revolutionized the early 19th Century study of fossils, a discipline that later became paleontology. Unfortunately, she seldom got the credit, which she resented. However, by the end of her life, many of the major scientists of the day visited her village and often accompanied her on fossil hunting expeditions. (It was Anning who first suggested that oddly shaped fossils containing the bones of small fish and other creatures were fossilized ichthyosaur poop - later named "coprolites," which have amused undergraduate students ever since.)

Anning died of breast cancer at 47, still largely underappreciated, and still poor. It wasn't until the 20th Century that she has received the recognition she deserved. I'm not pleased - oh, coprolite! - that my own appreciation had to wait until the fall of 2010.

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