What kind of recognition do you get when you are a pioneering female paleontologist in the 17th Century? One that has been called the ‘greatest fossilist the world ever knew’? A monument? An international award in your name? A professorship? No. A tongue twister. That’s what you get.
Mary Anning was born to a lower-class family at the turn of the 16th century in Dorset, a port town on the southwest coast of England. One of the oldest in her family, Ms. Anning took up fossil hunting in the limestone cliffs along the coast with her father and became known locally for her daily walks, scouring the dangerous and unstable cliff bases along the shore for what would become the largest and most diversified collection of fossils in her time. After her father’s death, she turned her hobby into a profitable endeavor to help support her family, selling specimens to tourists, but more lucratively, to gentlemen scientists in the growing field of paleontology. These men flocked to her to obtain samples, detailed descriptions, and anatomical sketches of Jurassic-period fossils, many of which, such as the ichthyosaur which she discovered at the age of twelve, had never before been described. Though she was an early and important contributor to the theory of evolution, she was largely regarded a rock hound and field worker. Her research and findings were never published under her own name, or even a pen name- her male counterparts almost always chose to publish her work under their own names, ‘on her behalf.’ Moreover, the scientific community that relied so heavily upon her work attributed her intellect and abilities to a rumor that she had survived a lightning strike in infancy that had killed several other people. Today, she is credited with many of the earliest discoveries of dinosaurs and prehistoric reptiles species.
In the later years of her life, recognizing her contribution to the field and her ongoing lack of financial resources, the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Geological Society of London granted her an annual annuity. The money for the annuity was charitably raised by the membership of both groups, the latter of which would not admit women until 1904, nearly twenty years after her death. At the time of her death she was so widely known and highly regarded that the Charles Dickens Journal, said of her, ‘the carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and deserved to win it.’
While her work remains a cornerstone of modern geological and biological theory, her name has largely been lost from mainstream science curricula. The only mainstream reminder of Ms. Mary Anning bears no reference to her as either an outdoors woman or a scientist. She is the inspiration for the ubiquitous tongue twister- “She sells seashells by the sea shore.”