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Celebrating Women in STEM: Mary Anning

Mary Anning was not your typical English woman; she was a fossil hunter.

Anning was born to a poor family on May 21, 1799 in Lyme Regis on the southern shore of England. The area was (and still is) rich with fossils from the Jurassic period.

Her father, Richard, worked as a cabinet maker, but his true passion was for fossils. He taught Anning and his other children to collect fossils along the shoreline. Anning was particularly gifted at this hobby, and would sell her fossils to tourists in the area.

In 1810, Anning’s father passed away, leaving her fossil business as the primary income source for her family. Some believe that the old tongue-twister “She sells sea shells by the sea shore” is a tribute to Anning’s business.

At the age of 12, Anning made a discovery that would change her life. Walking along the shoreline with her brother, she discovered and excavated a complete Icthyosaur, a marine species from the Jurassic Period.

Though this species had already been discovered, Anning’s was the first recognized by the Geological Society of London and she is often credited as the first to find one.

Sadly, the discovery did not bring her family out of poverty. As a young woman with no scientific education, Anning struggled to be recognized in the science community.

Anning and her family befriended Thomas Birch, a well-known fossil hunter in 1817. Birch became a patron of the family, and sold many fossils from his personal collection to help support them.

In 1823, Anning made the most significant discovery of her life: the very first Plesiosaurus. Plesiosaurus, shown in the image, was a marine species that appeared in the Triassic Period and thrived in the Jurassic.

Source: University of Bristol
Source: University of Bristol

Anning’s discovery was initially written off as a fake by George Curvier, the “father of paleontology,” but he later rescinded his accusation. After her famous Plesiosaurus, Anning’s discoveries continued to shape modern paleontology.

She found the first Pterosaur, a flying reptile, in 1828 outside of Germany. She also found the first complete remains of a flying reptile, which she named Pterodactylus macronyx, though it was later renamed Dimorphodon macronyx. Dimorphodon macronyx recently appeared in the movie Jurassic World.

Anning’s life was impressive, especially for a woman in the 19th century. She won an annuity form the British Association for the Advancement of Sciences in 1838 and was made an honorary member of the Geological Society of London (women were not eligible for full membership until 1919). In 1846, she became the first honorary member of the Dorset County Museum.

When she passed away from breast cancer in 1847, Anning’s obituary was released in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, a society that didn’t allow women until 1904.

Despite poverty, no formal education and sexism, Mary Anning is still known as one of the best 19th century paleontologists. In 1865, Charles Dickens wrote in his periodical All The Year Round that “the carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and deserved to win it.”

Are you interested in empowering women in the STEM fields? The Women in Science (Wi-Sci) group wants you! Meetings every Friday in the Women’s Center, 12:30 pm

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