Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Fossil Hunter

Recently read The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World by Shelley Emling (2009, Palgrave Macmillan).

It's the story of Mary Anning (1799-1847), a famous woman fossil collector from Lyme Regis, England.  Lyme Regis, a small coastal town in West Dorset, is world famous for its Jurassic Period (~145 to 200 million years ago) fossils - especially ammonites and and large marine reptiles like ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs.

I have to confess to not knowing much about Mary Anning prior to reading this book.  As a matter of fact, I had always assumed she was simply of woman who collected and sold fossils and only mentioned in textbooks because she was a woman doing something geological at a time when all geologists were men.  In other words, not very important in the history of geology.

I was wrong.

Turns out Mary Anning was quite the woman and has not been given her due in many respects.  She could have been much more too - if she wasn't living at a time when women were treated as 2nd class citizens and in a country where inbred, wealthy twits kept "lower-class" people away from educational opportunities.  She was obviously much more intelligent than many of the male scientists she worked with at the time.

Mary was born poor, of low social class, and received virtually no formal education.  Despite this, she taught herself paleontology and became one of the foremost experts on Jurassic fossils which she extensively collected outside her doorstep.

Head of an ichthyosaur fossil.
Fossil ichthyosaur collected by Mary Anning at Lyme Regis

Male geologists and paleontologist came from all over to go with Mary on local collecting trips, pick her brains and learn from her, buy her fossils, and then typically either resell them at much higher prices in London or publish what they learned without giving her any credit.

It's a great biography of an interesting, but tragic in many ways (she died relatively young of painful breast cancer), woman who lived during a fascinating time in the history of geology and who has not been given her due.

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