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WoW Blog (Woman of the Week) Blog

WoW Blog (Woman of the Week)

Each week this blog will feature a prominent woman who made significant contributions to engineering or science. If you have any women you'd like us to feature please let us know and we'll do our best to include them.

Do you know of a great woman in engineering that should be recognized? Let us know! Submit a few paragraphs about that person and we'll add her to the blog. Please provide a citation for the material that you submit so that we can verify it. Please note - it has to be original material. We cannot publish copywritten material or bulk text taken from books or other sites (including Wikipedia).

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Woman of the Week – Mary Anning

Posted March 06, 2017 4:30 PM by lmno24

Mary Anning was an English fossil collector, dealer, and paleontologist who became known for important finds she made in Jurassic marine fossil beds in the cliffs along the English Channel at Lyme Regis in the county of Dorset in Southwest England.

Her findings contributed to important changes in scientific thinking about prehistoric life and the history of the Earth.

Anning was born in Lyme Regis in Dorset, England. Her father, Richard Anning, was a cabinetmaker who supplemented his income by mining the coastal cliff-side fossil beds near the town, and selling his finds to tourists. This eventually sparked his daughter’s interest, mostly because her father took her and her siblings along to search for fossils.

By the late 18th century, Lyme Regis had become a popular seaside resort and increasing numbers of wealthy and middle class tourists were arriving there. Even before Mary's time, locals supplemented their income by selling what were called "curios" to tourists. These were fossils with colorful local names such as "snake-stones" (ammonites), "devil's fingers" (belemnites), and "verteberries" (vertebrae), to which were sometimes attributed medicinal and mystical properties. Fossil collecting was trendy in the late 18th and early 19th century, at first as a pastime, but gradually transforming into a science as the importance of fossils to geology and biology was understood.

Many of these fossils were found along the coastal cliffs around Lyme Regis, part of a geological formation known as the Blue Lias. This consists of alternating layers of limestone and shale, laid down as sediment on a shallow seabed early in the Jurassic period. It was one of the most fruitful areas to find fossils, but also a very dangerous one. In winter, which also happened to be the best time to collect, rain caused severe landslides. Those landslides also proved helpful, though dangerous, as they exposed new fossils.

Their father, Richard, often took Mary and her brother Joseph on fossil-hunting expeditions to make more money for the family. They offered their discoveries for sale to tourists on a table outside their home. This was a difficult time for England's poor; the French Revolutionary Wars, and the Napoleonic Wars that followed, caused food shortages. The price of wheat almost tripled between 1792 and 1812, but wages for the working class remained almost unchanged. Money struggles caused political unrest and some rioting.

Her family did encounter some struggles of their own as well. They were not followers of the Church of England and faced much discrimination because of this. When her father got sick, they were offered no help form the community and he left them with little money, forcing the family to apply for parish relief, which was challenging to get due to their beliefs.

The family continued collecting and selling fossils together, and set up a table of curiosities near the coach stop at a local inn.

Anning has been credited with the first discovery of ichthyosaur fossils, or at least the first version to be known by scientists. This specimen was probably discovered sometime between 1809 and 1811, when she was only 10 to 12 years old. And while Mary did find the majority of the remains, her brother had discovered part of the beast a year prior. In fact, the entire Anning family was involved in fossil hunting, but her skill and dedication produced many remarkable finds and thus provided the now fatherless family with a means of income. The fossils that they continued to find after her father’s death became sought after not only by museums and scientists, but by European nobles, many of whom had substantial private collections of fossils and other "curiosities."

But perhaps her most important find, from a scientific point of view, was her discovery of the first plesiosaur. The famous French anatomist, Georges Cuvier, doubted the validity of the specimen when he first examined a detailed drawing. Once Cuvier realized that this was a genuine find, the family’s fossil searching became legitimate and they soon rose up as respected fossilists in the eyes of the scientific community.

In spite of this recognition, the majority of her finds ended up in museums and personal collections without credit being given. As time passed, Anning and her family were forgotten by the scientific community and most historians, due to the lack of appropriate documentation of her special skills. The family’s social class contributed to this, as well as the fact that she was a young, uneducated girl.

Many scientists of the day could not believe that a young woman from such a deprived background could possess the knowledge and skills that she seemed to display, according to her biography.



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Re: Woman of the Week – Mary Anning

03/08/2017 10:00 AM

Interesting! It must have been so different to discover dinosaur bones back in those days.

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