Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Google Doodle for Mary Anning

You probably have to be either a palaeontologist or somebody like me who has a hobby interest in fossils to know about Mary Anning. However, her life's story can't be told often enough to teach us a lesson about women's contribution to science which never received proper credit throughout their lifetime, and the struggles those women had to go through simply because they were female. Unfortunately, the world's academia hasn't fully resolved this issue despite all efforts on gender equity (just two examples here and here).

Today Google is celebrating Mary Anning's 215th birthday with a special doodle, which shows Anning uncovering a dinosaur's fossilised remains. But who was Mary Anning? I took the following text from today's Daily Telegraph as this article provides a concise answer to the question:

Mary Anning, born on 21 May 1799, was a British fossil collector, dealer, and palaeontologist who became known around the world for the discoveries she made while exploring the marine fossil beds at Lyme Regis in Dorset.

Anning searched for fossils in the area's Blue Lias cliffs – particularly during the winter months when landslides exposed new fossils that had to be collected quickly before they were lost to the sea. It was dangerous work, and she nearly lost her life in 1833 during a landslide.

Her discoveries included the first ichthyosaur skeleton correctly identified, which she and her brother Joseph found when she was just twelve years old, the first two plesiosaur skeletons ever found, the first pterosaur skeleton located outside Germany, and important fish fossils.

Anning's work contributed to fundamental changes in scientific thinking about prehistoric life and the history of the Earth, at a time when there was little to challenge the biblical interpretation of the story of creation.

However, although Anning was well known in geological circles in Britain, Europe, and America, her gender and social class prevented her from fully participating in the scientific community of 19th-century Britain, which was dominated by wealthy Anglican men.

She struggled financially for much of her life. Her family was poor, and as religious dissenters, were subject to legal discrimination. As a woman, she was not eligible to join the Geological Society of London, and she did not always receive full credit for her scientific contributions.

The only scientific writing of hers published in her lifetime appeared in the Magazine of Natural History in 1839 – an extract from a letter that Anning had written to the magazine's editor questioning one of its claims. It was only in 2010, 163 years after her death in 1847, that the Royal Society included Anning in a list of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science.

If you want to learn more about Mary Anning and her life, there are two historical novels that are recommended by the Telegraph writer, Sophie Curtis: Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier, and Curiosity by Joan Thomas.

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