Mary Anning

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Have you ever heard the proverbial saying, “every cloud has a silver lining”? Well, this was certainly the case for the accidental paleontologist, Mary Anning.

Mary Anning was born May 21, 1799 to a working-class family living on the southern coast of England. Life was tough for the Annings. Short of food and creature comforts, they also suffered through frequent storms so severe they sometimes had to climb out the second-floor windows of their home to escape flooding.

The Annings weren’t the only things displaced by the angry sea. Over the centuries, rain and wind had washed away layers of earth on the cliffs near their home, exposing petrified bones as well as animal skeletons imprinted in stone. When Mary was just 12 years old, they found a four-foot skull. Within months, Mary had uncovered the entire creature. It turned out to be the fossilized remains of an Ichthyosaur and when a London collector bought it for 23 pounds (more than $2K today!), she was hooked.

Mary even prospected for fossils in winter, when storms raged. It was dangerous work. She narrowly missed being crushed by landslides many times. (Sadly, her trusty terrier Tray was not so lucky.) She found fossils of ammonite and belemnite, which she sold to summer tourists, possibly inspiring the tongue twister, “She sells sea shells by the sea shore.”

But it was Mary’s keen eye for the unique and remarkable that caused her reputation to grow. She constructed the first complete Plesiosaurus as well as a flying reptile called Pterosaur. Despite her limited education, she kept up with all the scientific journals and often wrote to them, challenging findings she did not agree with. Famous archaeologists and paleontologists from Britain and Europe flocked to her Dorset doorstep. But being a woman and working class, Mary never gained acceptance within the all-male, upper-class scientific circles of her day.

Though she did not receive the recognition due her in life, Mary Anning is regarded today as one of the most influential women in the history of science. Her contributions to the field of paleontology remain unsurpassed.

It is said that every cloud brings a silver lining. And, indeed, the wind and rain brought fortune and fame to this accidental female scientist and fossil hunter of the Victorian era. Many thanks to Heather Kilgour of both London and New Zealand, for bringing #HistoryHero Mary Anning to our attention.

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