IT WAS the best of finds, it was the worst of times.
Mary Anning was a pioneering paleontologist two centuries ago, at a time when a number of notable women were pursuing the science of finding fossils. Yet it was also an era when, as women, they could not be rewarded with the highest professional recognition for their work.
In Southwest Britain, along the English Channel in Dorset, a young Anning would scour and dig and unearth scientific treasures from the marine fossil beds at Lyme Regis, where she would make a name for herself within the field as collector and researcher and expert.
Charles Dickens himself, 18 years after her death, would write that the “carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.”
Yet her career was a tale of two realities.
Along Dorset’s Blue Lias cliffs, Anning would risk life and limb — once barely surviving a landslide — to discover prehistoric fossils. At age 12, she and her brother found the first properly identified ichthyosaur skeleton, and along this coast, she would make vital and fact-yielding finds of plesiosaur and pterosaur skeletons.
No matter her success, however, working against Anning were her gender (a male-dominated field), her social class (a poor background) and the faith of her family (religious dissenters). Anning wrote in letters of her difficulties against this threefold discrimination, and how she viewed the professional intentions of others with suspicion, as she was denied credit for her contributions, and her scientific writing mostly went unpublished. The Geological Society of London knew her name, and her accomplishments, but still would not extend membership because of her sex.
Mary Anning died in 1847, at age 47, woefully under-credited for her achievement.
Fortunately, the longer arc of time has bent toward rectifying her grievous snubbing. In 2010, the Royal Society selected her as one of the 10 most important British women in science. And today, on the 215th anniversary of Anning’s birth, Google — which has made a recent concerted effort to salute more women on its home page — celebrates her rightful place in the scientific pantheon with a Doodle of her at work.
Mary Anning, trumpeted the British Journal for the History of Science, is “the greatest fossilist the world ever knew.”