May 21st: Mary Anning!

Today, a globally-posted Google Doodle honors famed British paleontologist Mary Anning, credited with key fossil discoveries from the Jurassic era. Here, we’ll learn a bit more about Anning, her career, and her contributions to science.

The Doodle celebrating the birth of Mary Anning, posted May 21st, 2014.

The Doodle celebrating the birth of Mary Anning, posted May 21st, 2014.

Anning was born on this date in 1799, in Dorset, England, where she would eventually make her key discoveries. She had access to very limited education, though she was able to read and write. Later, Anning would read and make hand copies of scientific papers. She got her start collecting fossils because it was a common cottage industry in her hometown: tourists to the seaside would purchase the fossilized remains of ancient sea creatures. Eventually, once she was widely known as an expert scientist and collector, Anning was able to purchase a storefront and continue to make her living by selling to collectors and tourists.

Anning collected a wide variety of fossils in the area where she lived and grew up, which was a particularly lucrative site for the emergent field of paleontology. The Blue Lias cliffs there expose layers of limestone and shale, and both sea water and landslides would constantly expose new fossils. Anning’s challenge was to identify and collect them quickly before they would be washed away to sea. Though the site provided a rich dataset, it was also a dangerous setting in which to work.

The danger of her scientific work stood in ironic contrast to a greater challenge for Anning: because she was a woman, and because she was from a poor background, she wasn’t able to be a part of the larger scientific community. Specifically, her entire gender was banned from the Geological Society of London. This kind of systematic discrimination made it difficult or impossible for female scientists of the time to have their work recognized, attributed to them, and disseminated, all critical aspects of working in scientific fields. Anning was only published once in her entire lifetime, and that was a letter to the editor of the Magazine of Natural History in which she critiqued incorrect information which her work disproved. Instead, male scientists purchased her fossils and used her work (both in finding and in characterizing the fossils) to publish scientific articles under their own names. She assisted many scientists with their collection work and often suggested key ideas that would inform their work — for instance, it was Anning who determined the true origin of coprolites. The credit and glory, however, were not accessible to Anning.

A portrait of Mary Anning (painter uncertain), contributed to the Natural History Museum of London by Anning's brother Joseph.

A portrait of Mary Anning (painter uncertain), contributed to the Natural History Museum of London by Anning’s brother Joseph.

Anning is credited with the first discovery of ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and several fish species. Her work helped to substantiate the now fully accepted theory of extinction — that some species live but completely disappear. She also determined, through systematic study of fossilized belemnoids, that these ancestral cephalopods contained ink sacs like some of their modern cousins. Beyond characterizing fossils, Anning was also skilled in technical drawing, and carried out anatomical studies of modern animals in order to compare them to the fossilized samples.

Anning died young of breast cancer at age 47, but her scientific legacy lived on. She was the first woman to be eulogized upon her death by a publication in the quarterly transactions of the Geological Society. The discovery of an earlier era, in which life was dominated by very different creatures and included what came to be known as the “age of reptiles,” fundamentally changed scientific understanding of the Earth’s history. This changed scientific understanding also led to the development of entirely new fields of study, like the paleontological research of which Anning was a leading pioneer. Several species have been named after her, and the Royal Society has listed her among the 10 British women who contributed the most to science. Anning is also, interestingly, the subject of the common tongue twister, “She sells seashells by the seashore.”

Mary Anning is an interesting and critical addition to the collection of Google Doodles. Her work and incredibly sharp intellect should speak for themselves — but because of the time in which she lived, and because of the real and detrimental effects of gender discrimination, her story hasn’t been told as loud or as often as the stories of male scientists. One of her colleagues wrote of Mary Anning, “She says the world has used her ill . . .  These men of learning have sucked her brains, and made a great deal of publishing works, of which she furnished the contents, while she derived none of the advantages.” That is what Speaking Up is all about: revealing and confronting the fact that women don’t receive recognitions like Google Doodles, but it’s not because women aren’t good enough at creating or innovating. It’s because for too long women lived in a world that ignored or stole their creations and innovations. Speaking Up is about correcting a past wrong and striving to do better now and in the future.

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