Monday, September 26, 2016

Mary Anning

History of Science
Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

She sells sea-shells on the sea-shore,
The shoes she sells are sea-shells, I'm sure,
For if she sells sea-shells on the sea-shore,
Then I'm sure she sells sea-shore shells.
--Terry Sullivan 1908

Mary Anning's Early Life

When Mary Anning was 15 months old she was being held by a neighbor while standing with two others under a tree.  There was a lightning strike and only Mary survived. Her survival was declared a miracle by the local doctor and Mary's later curiosity, intelligence and sparkling personality were attributed to this event.

Mary was born May 20, 1799 in Lyme Regis, in coastal England. Fossil country.  Her father, a cabinet-maker supplemented his meager earnings by collecting and selling fossils (curiosities or "curies").  As a child, Mary and her brother accompanied him to the rotting shale, sandstone, and limestone cliffs which originaged in the Jurassic (210 to 195 mya) to collect. They focused especially on ammonids ("snake stones"), belemites ("devil's fingers"), and vertebrae ("verteberries"). Her father died when she was ten, leaving her, her mother and brother, with a very large, nagging and life-threatening debt. So, Mary continued their business.

This collector and seller of fossils also made some of the most important discoveries of the nineteenth century and is the subject of a compelling novel by Tracy Chevalier.  Chevalier took "the events of her life and condensed them to fit into a narrative.... Hence events, while in order, do not always coincide exactly with actual dates and time spans. Plus, of course, I made up plenty. For instance, while there was gossip about Mary and Buckland and Mary and Birch, there was no proof. This is where only a novelist can step in."

Mary Anning, from Wikipedia.

But why deny Anning such possibilities? Chevalier makes delightful use of lightning as a metaphor throughout her vivid story. She also uses the idea that people "lead with one particular feature, a part of the face or body."  For Mary it was her eyes.  She was a well-practiced "noticer," honed by long days under and near the unstable fossil cliffs in all kinds of weather. Anning also had to pay attention to the tides for she could be stranded for hours or required to use another and longer way home, up and over the cliffs, to escape.

Anning's Unlikely Career

Anning became a well-known and respected paleontologist/geologist. This is even more remarkable considering her circumstances as a working-class woman in a socially stratified society with rigid borders. She was excluded from active participation in the scientific community but certainly pushed its edges.

However, in spite of her circumstances and that she was entirely self-educated, she became very confident in her abilities. She was also aware that she knew more than many of the famous paleontologists who came to visit her. She read scientific papers and painstakingly copied them as well as re-drew the figures for her own use.  Anning made important finds, especially one of the most complete Ichthyosaurs, a well-articulated skeleton, the first British Plesiosaurs and Dimonphodons. Anning did all of the preparation and cleaning work, a wearying task that demands attention so as not to harm the skeletal materials.

William Buckland, a lecturer in geology at Oxford University was a frequent visitor to the fragile and sometimes dangerous cliffs of Lyme Regis  where he collected with her. That she spent time on the beach, alone with a man was material for rumor and accusations among members of this closed and close-knit community.

Contributions and Impact

Anning discovered the true nature of the so-called bezoar stones. They were in fact fossilized feces. Buckland renamed them coprolites. She and Elizabeth Philpot (the other main character in Chevalier's book who was also an important collector and fossil hunter) were the first to observe a connection between fossilized belemite ink sacks and modern cephalopods.

Anning's only publication was part of a letter she wrote to a scientific journal in which she challenged the discovery of a new fossil shark genus.  She wrote that she had found both hooked and straight teeth many times while in the field.

Rhomaleosaurus fossil and Mary Anning plaque from Wikimedia Commons
I especially recommend a paper about this "princess of paleontology and geological lionness" by Larry E. Davis, College of St.Benedict/St. John's University.  It is a more detached view of Anning than Chevalier and provides many scientific details Chevalier doesn't.

The paper includes a portrait of Anning in her field gear with her hammer, basket (imagine collecting in that clothing!) and her dog Tray (who was often seen curled up next to her fossil finds, guarding it from other fossil finders), examples of transcripts by her (writing and drawings), poems (she wrote poems about friends and people she admired), fossils (including coprolites, of course), a stain glass window in a local church dedicated to Mary Anning, photographs of the cliffs, her grave marker, and references (including all children's books known to Davis at the time).

The tongue twister opening this post is from Davis' paper, one you may have heard or tried to say without tripping over your tongue. It was inspired by Mary Anning and was written nearly 50 years following her death. Be sure to try it out loud and challenge others to try it too. Anning died, age 47, of breast cancer on March 9, 1847.

I also strongly recommend the Wikipedia entry which adds context that deepens understanding and appreciation--I must add awe--of Mary Anning and her magnificent accomplishments.  One of the features I very much appreciated about Chevalier's story was the way she tells of the difficulties and harshness of Anning's life as well as that of her family while accomplishing so much.

A Google search brought up this illustrated list of children's books about Mary Anning.

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