Mary Anning

One of my favourite pastimes is to wander around book shops and occasionally indulge myself with a purchase.  Recently, I was lucky enough to have the luxury of a few spare hours whilst waiting for a train and got lost in a large chain bookstore (Between a Rock does not want to be accused of favouring one book chain over another!).  On one of the shelves hidden away was a book I had been meaning to read for some time and I just couldn’t resist.  The book was “Remarkable Creatures” by Tracy Chevalier and tells the story of Mary Anning, a prominent female fossil hunter in the UK, way back before people really knew what a fossil was.

Front cover of the book Remarkable Creatures taken from amazon.co.uk
Front cover of the book Remarkable Creatures taken from amazon.co.uk

The book is set on the Jurassic coast during the early 19th century and was written from two women’s perspectives; Mary Anning and her mentor/friend/sponsor, Elizabeth Philpot. These women came from different classes. Mary was a poor carpenter’s daughter who grew up on the beaches surrounding Lyme Regis hunting for curiosities (fossils) to sell to tourists, whereas Elizabeth was a middle class spinster who had spent most of her life in London only to be sent to Lyme Regis in her later years by her brother.  The story is the journey of these two women’s friendship and their joint love of fossils.  This description sounds a little like a poorly worded blurb on the back of a book and by no means does justice to a wonderfully composed piece of historical fiction.  I will now try and rectify that by placing this story into its historical context, and show that these ladies were truly inspirational women scientists.

In the early 19th century, women were not allowed in the Royal Geological Society of London meetings, or even to that matter into the building.  In fact, women were not even allowed to vote, let alone be accepted into university (the first University to accept women was UCL in 1878) or to have a career of their own.  To all intents and purposes, in the early 19th century women were second class citizens.  They were there to have children, raise them and keep the household together.

Still one of the best parts of Mary Poppins, that and maybe the floating tea party!
Still one of the best parts of Mary Poppins! That and maybe the floating tea party.

Bearing this in mind, to have women’s discoveries from the cliff of Lyme Regis shape a whole new way of thinking about the creation of the world and the development of prehistoric life is quite remarkable indeed.  Mary Anning spent the majority of her life hunting for fossils. The book eloquently describes her daily trudge up and down the beaches as an almost consuming passion for knowledge, for finding the next beast that was hidden from sight.  She taught her craft to eminent visiting scientists from universities and sold her finds to museums and private collectors.  These were the men and institutes who were credited with furthering the science of paleontology, not Mary herself.

The first full Ichthyosaur was found by Mary Anning when she was only 12.
The first full Ichthyosaur was found by Mary Anning when she was only 12.

Elizabeth Philpot is described in the book as having an eye for fossilised fish. Her collection seemed to take over her whole house. As she was of the middle classes, it also seemed that her interactions within scientific circles were a little more accepted; however, she was never considered one of their peers.  In the book it describes how she attempted to enter the Geological Society of London’s annual meeting whilst accompanied by her nephew as it would not have been proper for her to leave her house without a male escort of some description.

The book leaves not doubt in the reader’s mind that these two women were amazing scientists.  They were so dedicated in their passions for discovery that this drove them on for their entire lives. They were not in it for fame nor fortune. They were in it for the love of science and this alone. Personally, I find this story incredibly motivating and I recommend this book to those readers who may need a little inspiration and encouragement in their own pursuit of science.

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About KT Cooper

I’m a carbonate biogeochemist. When I’m not in the Bahamas, I dabble in the world of computer modelling.

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