The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World

Emling, Shelley

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn
  • Date of entry: Sep-04-2010
  • Last revised: Sep-01-2010


Mary Anning was born in Lyme Regis in 1799 on the southern coast of England. With her father, she learned to hunt for fossils that have become popular curiosities among tourists. But the science of paleontology was still in its infancy. Her father died in 1810 leaving his small family in precarious circumstances. The following year, at the age of twelve, Mary unearthed the full skeleton of the world’s first ichthyosaur--more than 30 years before Richard Owen would propose the term, dinosauria (terrible lizards) to describe the class of these extinct creatures.

For the rest of her life she was driven to scour the cliffs day in, day out. Wearing odd, bulky clothing to protect her from the elements, she found many important fossils, including the first Plesiosaur and the first representative of a certain kind of pterodactyl.  She sold them to scholars. Although isolated and poor, she kept up with the new discoveries through the literature, and was skilled at reading the landscape and the unique bones.

Mary never prospered from her work, but received all visitors with generosity, flattered and proud of the small attention they gave her. Lacking privilege and a husband, her discoveries were taken over by male scientists who used them to build the new science and their reputations. Religious concerns over the age of the objects is a backdrop for the discoveries; however, Mary appears to have been convinced that her fossils challenged the standard interpretations and yet unshaken in her faith. She died of breast cancer at age 48.


Relying on scholarly secondary sources and the scant primary source material about Mary Anning, the journalist-author has reconstructed a most unusual life and packaged it in an engaging format with notes, index, and timeline. Some evidence suggests that Mary was aware of how she received too little credit for her contributions. These are poignant moments in an already difficult life marked by financial stress and solitude.

Emling strives within reasonable bounds to speculate on whether or not Mary ever formed any romantic attachments, but because the first-person accounts are so rare, she is often left surmising and falling back on “must have” phrases to deal with emotion and detail. But the whole is an easy, compelling read. The significance of each new find is well explained, and the birth of an entirely new scientific discipline unfolds through the telling of this short life. This remarkable woman’s journey will spark interest in other women, like Anning, who are unsung heroes in the history of science.


Palgrave Macmillan

Place Published

New York



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