Who sells seashells by the seashore? And, more importantly, why should you care?

Journalist Shelley Emling's got the answer to both of these questions in her recent book, The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World. She is Mary Anning and this pithy tongue-twister does no justice to her fascinating life as the world's first female paleontologist.

As for me, I had never heard of Mary Anning until just a few months ago when I caught an interview of Emling on the radio. She was discussing her biography of Anning along with another writer, Tracy Chevalier who had also recently published a novel inspired by Anning's life called Remarkable Creatures.

These writers spoke excitedly about an eccentric woman, born in 1799, who grew up on the southern "Jurassic Coast" of England in a seaside town called Lyme Regis, its cliffs and shores loaded with fossils. She often accompanied her father and brother as they combed the beaches looking for "curiosities" to sell to tourists and collectors in order to support their poor, working-class family. In The Fossil Hunter, Emling paints us a never-before-seen portrait of the young Anning, dragging her long skirts through the wet sand and lugging a heavy sack of shells and fossils behind her--a very different picture from the genteel women I read about in my favorite 19th Century British novels.

When she was only twelve, Anning discovered the fossil skeleton of an icthyosaur. In 1810, her brother Joseph uncovered the long, narrow skull of what they thought was a strange-looking lizard or a crocodile. For months, Anning patiently chipped away at the cliff with her hammer to find the rest of its body from the long, curved spine to its paddle-like fins. The world had never seen such a bizarre creature!

In her short life, Anning would go on to find four more important fossils, including two species of plesiosaur, teach herself anatomy and become friends with some of the 19th century's most prominent scientists like William Buckland and Henry De La Beche. Her death in 1847 coincided with the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species and he was certainly aware of her remarkable contributions to his field and the support they lent to his theories.

Of course, Anning's discoveries caused quite the stir. Findings like hers were shocking even to scientists, many of whom believed the earth was only 6,000 years old. As Emling suggests, it's very likely that Anning was frightened of her own fossils. The icthyosaur was one of the first pieces of evidence to suggest an even greater geologic time scale of not thousands, nor millions, but billions of years--a fact that is still unfathomable today.

So why haven't we heard of this extraordinary woman? Wealthy collectors and top scientists knew she was the one to go to for fossils and they traveled all the way from London to Lyme Regis to meet her on the beach. Yet, they often did not acknowledge her when they presented her findings at scientific conferences. Women were not allowed to attend universities until after Anning's death and today, her contributions to science have sadly been whittled down to a tongue-twister. Sure, she sold seashells by the seashore, but she also found four fundamental fossils. The Fossil Hunter is published by Palgrave Macmillan (2009, $27.00).

Katie Colaneri is a senior at Wellesley College interning with NOVA's research team this spring.

User Comments:

Really interesting... these kinds of articles make me wonder what other things have been discovered by Women, African-Americans, or any other group of people who had no voice.

Well done!

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