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800px-Mary_Anning_painting

Happy Birthday to Mary Anning (21 May 1799 – 9 March 1847).  Mary’s life was a difficult one.  Her father was a poor cabinet-maker in Lyme Regis (a coastal town in Dorset, England) who supplemented his income by selling strange petrified shells and stone bullets which he pried out of a nearby sea cliff.  Mary’s parents had ten children, but only Mary and her brother survived past early childhood.  Her name was a hand-me-down from an older sister who had burned to death at the age of four.  When Mary was 15 months old, she and three neighbors were under a tree when it was struck by lightning and only Mary survived.  Her father died while Mary and her brother were young and they kept the family afloat by selling curiosities pried from the sea cliffs.  This was dangerous business: Mary’s beloved terrier Tray was crushed in a rockslide (he’s up there sleeping with the ammonites in the painting) and Mary narrowly avoided this fate herself on multiple occasions.  Additionally, living so close to the sea carried further perils: the family nearly drowned from a flood during a great storm.  Mary Anning died of breast cancer at the age of 47.  Her final years were marked by agonizing pain from the condition which she self-treated with laudanum (which caused the community to gossip about her morals).

This is a pretty bleak biography (although in no way atypical for a working-class woman from early industrial Great Britain).  So why are we writing about Mary 172 years after her death anyway? Mary Anning was a great pioneer of paleontology, geology, ichthyology, ecology, and invertebrate zoology.  The luminaries of the English geology community relied on her indomitable fieldwork to frame their conclusions about the history of living things and to stock their museums with specimens. Mary was a religious dissenter and the daughter of a cabinet-maker in an age when geology was the near-exclusive preserve of well-to-do Anglican gentlefolk (the Geological Society of London did not even allow women to attend meetings as guests).  Yet she kept informed of the scientific literature of her day and she dissected fish and invertebrates as to better understand the nature of her excavations and discoveries. Above all, Mary Anning actually discovered the fossils which others wrote about–so she had insights and knowledge which were occluded from armchair scholars. Charles Lyell (the father of geology) wrote to her asking her opinions about cliff erosion.  Mary proposed a theory to William Buckland that some of the fossils she discovered were ingested by ichthyosaurs and the remains excreted (a concept which fascinated Buckland and became the central focus of his work). In a fair world she would have an alphabet of letters after her name and be immortalized as a statue on a plinth beside the statues of Darwin and Lyell.  Even in our fallen world, she is revered as one of the founders of the natural history and life science disciplines (although many biographies about her concentrate on the sad exigencies of her life rather than on the extraordinary discoveries she made, a tradition which I have somewhat followed).

The cliffs which Mary relied on for specimens were part of a geological formation known as the Blue Lias. These layers of limestone and shale were a shallow seabed of the Tethys Ocean during the Jurassic period (about 210–195 million years ago).  The curlicues and stone bullets were fossil ammonites and belemnites, but Mary had a knack for finding the much rarer remains of hitherto unknown creatures such as ichthyosaurs, pterosaurs, plesiosaurs and other ancient marine fauna.

In the early 19th century a debate was raging between learned churchmen who knew for certain that God’s perfect creation could never be diminished and gentlemen geologists who believed that there had once been animals which were gone from earth…”extinct” as they called this new concept.   Mary’s fossils of bizarre giant sea crocodiles and lizard dolphins gave concrete evidence to the ur-paleontologists (who were indeed proven right).  Her discoveries were seminal for the discovery of paleontology itself and paved the way to the understanding that the world’s ecosystems were once very different indeed from what they are like now.   These pieces of knowledge helped towards an understanding of the true age of the Earth and ultimately made Darwin’s discoveries possible.

jurassicmary

Here is another painting of Mary, by the greatest living fish-artist, Ray Troll.  Troll shows Mary with fleshed-out versions of the creatures she discovered (note the ichthyosaur swallowing an ammonite).  We owe an enormous debt to Mary Anning.  Her contributions were under-appreciated in her day (when only the most learned gentleman scientists…and Mary… had inklings of the real nature of natural history and what her super sea-monsters connoted ), but those discoveries undergird our understanding the nature of the planet and of life itself.

 

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