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