One of my retirement activities is to read for pleasure. As a professor at the University of Northern BC, I simply had little appetite for reading on my spare time. Now I once again enjoy losing myself in various stories, particularly about people.
My current book is called “The Story of Life in 25 Fossils” by Donald R. Prothero
(Columbia University Press). Prothero describes the significance of various fossils along the phylogenetic tree, particularly how they have helped us map the evolution of life from the earliest prokaryotes to the most advanced vertebrates. The part that I find most fascinating is the stories of the people who found the fossils, and one story in particular has caught my attention.
In 1799, a baby girl was born into the poor family of Richard Anning, a cabinet maker living in the village of Lyme Regis (now a popular resort area) on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset, England. She was named Mary after her sister, who had tragically died five months earlier after accidentally setting her dress on fire. When Mary was 15 months old, she survived a lightning strike, which killed the woman holding her along with three other women. Of 11 children born to Mary’s mother only Mary and her older brother Joseph survived to adulthood. This is a significant fact for me, since my great grandmother gave birth to 14 children, of which the first five died within a year of their birth (as did two more), leaving my grandmother on my father’s side and six siblings. Mary received only enough education to learn to read and write, but as you will see, she made good use of these skills.
The family subsidized their income by collecting and selling fossils found along the coast. But when Richard Anning died from tuberculosis (possibly aided by injuries suffered at the cliffs when collecting fossils) at the age of 44, he left Mary’s mother with two children and the fossils as their sole source of income. Mary and Joseph, her brother, continued to collect fossils, and Mary became extremely competent. She read (and sometimes copied) publications about fossils, and over time became adept at recognizing fossil types, and she developed a keen eye for details. It was this ability that led to her recently being named one of the 10 most significant British women of science (https://royalsociety.org/news/2010/influential-british-women/).
The year after her father’s passing, when Mary was 12, Joseph found the fossil head of a large organism, which was at first thought to be a crocodilian. Mary found the rest of the specimen a few months later. After some confusion, this turned out to be the first ichthyosaur, a group of dolphin-like reptiles. She subsequently found a number of significant fossils, including more ichthyosaurs, several plesiosaurs (longnecked marine reptiles), as well as the first pterosaur found outside of Germany. She also discovered many important fish fossils, and through her keen eye for detail was instrumental in the discoveries of fossilized faeces (coprolites) and ammonite ink sacs similar to modern cephalopods.
Mary Anning died of breast cancer two months short of her 48th birthday. There is obviously much more to this story, which you can easily find through numerous sources written about Mary Anning over the years (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Anning). My fascination with this story stems in part from how she managed to gain a stellar reputation among established scientists at a time when women were not allowed to attend scientific meetings, let alone become members of learned societies. She faced incredible obstacles, not least as a woman (a situation that has not been completely rectified to this day, I am sad to say), being born into a poor family who were also so-called Dissenters, i.e., they were not part of the predominant Church of England, although that may have been a blessing as she may not have been taught to read and write otherwise. Furthermore, less than scrupulous scientists routinely took credit for her discoveries, with no acknowledgment of her role in finding and preparing the fossils. Fortunately she had a few influential benefactors who helped her through the rough patches of her life. After her death, she received unprecedented recognition in a eulogy given by the President of the Royal Geological Society. A collection among the society’s members paid for commemorative stained glass windows in St. Michael’s Church in Lyme Regis, where she and her brother Joseph share a grave, and today the house in which Mary was born is now the Lyme Regis Museum.
A while back I wrote a blog (https://escsecblog.com/2016/09/14/bugsr4girls-applied-entomology-with-a-twist/) about Sophie, the little girl who wants to be an entomologist. I couldn’t help thinking about her when reading about Mary Anning. Either way, the story of Mary Anning is one that should serve as inspiration to women in STEM, as well as a reminder that we need to continue to even the playing field. How many discoveries have been lost as a result of women like Mary who did not even benefit from what little fortune Mary had? Let’s make sure we don’t lose more!