Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Birthday Cheers for Mary Anning

Image: Google
My inner geek got really excited when she saw today's Google Doodle.  For it depicts one of my all time historical heroines, a bonnet clad, 19th century lady from coastal Dorset as today is her 215th birthday.  I'd be helping her blow out all those candles if she was still around.

Mary Anning was born and lived throughout her life in the town of Lyme Regis, one of my favourite places. It's situated on the stunning Jurassic Coast, a world heritage site. There the cliffs  are stuffed to the gunnels with fossils.  I used to go there as a child and hack bits of rock to death with a hammer and chisel in the hope of finding prehistoric treasure.  I first found out about Mary Anning, who became a palaeontologist to supplement family income, as her story was featured on Blue Peter.  It was included in the show's annual of that year.  And I gleaned more information about this lady's rather short life from an excellent Puffin book Mary Anning's Treasures which got rather dog eared as I re-read it many times.

She excised blooming great dinosaurs out of the cliff with her first important find at twelve years of age being a complete ichthyosaur skeleton and then went onto to dig out plesiosaurs and a pterosaur. I think that it was what I was dreaming of finding when I was a child following in her footsteps on my holiday.  Yes, I confess, as I chipped away I was pretending to be her in spite of wearing shorts and a T-shirt rather than a great big coat and black bonnet.  Her work though went beyond liberating fossils from the Blue Lias.  Even though her education was poor she had a real understanding of her subject matter gleaned from observations of what she'd found and from dissection.  Her knowledge seems to have been nicked by academic men of that time and many of her findings credited to these sneaky dudes.

In spite of discrimination against her because of poverty, her sex and her religious beliefs, Mary Anning made a substantial contribution to scientific thinking of the time about theories around extinction. Only after her lifetime did the importance of her work seem to be recognised culminating in her being named in 2010 by the Royal Society as the ten most important women in science.  Yay!


  1. Have you read Tracy Chevalier's novel "Remarkable Creatures" based on her story? I enjoyed it.

  2. No, I must get it. Library reservations here I come! x

  3. That made me smile too. She isn't much known in the wider world, but she certainly cropped up during my undergraduate geology lectures. Science all seems a bit out of reach now doesn't it - not many 12 yr olds can make such discoveries anymore. Less romantic.

  4. I loved seeing her acknowledged on Google, too.