Google doodle honors Mary Anning

May 21, 2014 • 9:51 am

If you don’t know who this person is, you should—especially if you’re a fan of science. Today’s Google Doodle (which I heard about from a UK friend last night), honors Mary Anning, whose 215th birthday is today (she died in 1847, 12 years before Darwin published On the Origin of Species).

She was the first well-known female paleontologist (in fact, I know of no other female paleontologists before her, though perhaps there were some who languished in obscurity), and made marvelous discoveries on the Jurassic Coast of Southern England, in Dorset. I’ve wandered the gorgeous shores where she prospected, and seen some of her finds in museums.  She was no gentlewoman naturalist with an independent income, like Darwin, for she came from the working classes and always had to support herself, which makes her accomplishments all the more remarkable.

And here is her Doodle:

 

Screen shot 2014-05-21 at 11.29.22 AM

Her most famous finds (Wikipedia gives a good account) were marine reptiles: plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs (she was the first to find a fossil of the latter); but she discovered a lot of other stuff, including fossil fish and invertebrates. Wikipedia notes:

Anning’s discoveries became key pieces of evidence for extinction. Georges Cuvier had argued for the reality of extinction in the late 1790s based on his analysis of fossils of mammals such as mammoths. Nevertheless, until the early 1820s it was still believed by many scientifically literate people that just as new species did not appear, so existing ones did not become extinct—in part because they felt that extinction would imply that God’s creation had been imperfect; any oddities found were explained away as belonging to animals still living somewhere in an unexplored region of the earth. The bizarre nature of the fossils found by Anning, some, such as the plesiosaur, so unlike any known living creature, struck a major blow against this idea.

The ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and pterosaur she found, along with the first dinosaur fossils which were discovered by Gideon Mantell and William Buckland during the same period, showed that during previous eras the earth was inhabited by creatures very different from those living today, and provided important support for another controversial suggestion of Cuvier’s: that there had been an “age of reptiles” when reptiles rather than mammals had been the dominant form of animal life.

As a woman in a man’s profession, particularly in that era, she had a rough time, ineligible to join the geological societies that harbored her colleagues, and galled by seeing  other people—men—given credit for her finds. Her life was no bed of roses, and she died at 47 of breast cancer, knowing, at least, that her work and its importance had been widely recognized.

In many ways she is the Rosalind Franklin of geology, but now every geologist knows of her. And rightly so.

Mary_Anning_painting
Anning with her tools. Wikipedia caption: “Mary Anning with her dog, Tray, painted before 1833 when her dog was killed by a landslide; the Golden Cap outcrop can be seen in the background.”

41 thoughts on “Google doodle honors Mary Anning

  1. In many ways she is the Rosalind Franklin of geology, but now every geologist knows of her.

    I’m not sure that sentence reads the way you intended. Doesn’t every biologist know of Franklin?

    1. I first read about her when I was a kid in “All About Dinosaurs” by Roy Chapman Andrews. She was featured as an important pioneer.

      1. I have listened to all the Explorers Podcasts while working out at the gym, and they are all excellent. Readers here might also like the podcasts on Carl Sagan, Jane Godall, Jacques Cousteau and Elizabeth Blackburn.

    1. I also keep seeing the hat as a strange abstract smiley face. The doodle is weird, in a good way.

  2. The tongue twister ‘She sells sea shells by the sea shore’ is supposedly about her.
    Good way to mock someone you despise by shrinking her contribution to purveyor of pretty and cheap baubles.

    1. Yes. I have done geologic mapping and other field work in a long dress. More comfortable than jeans or shorts, and better protection against thorny shrubs. The outfit that Mary Anning is wearing in the painting would be quite practical for a windy, misty, and often rainy British seashore, and her hat would be great anywhere.
      But I’m glad I have backpack and don’t have to carry my specimens home in a basket!

    2. I’m with you, Merilee. I’d wager most women find skirts far more mobility-limiting than pants, ironwing not withstanding.

      My first reaction to the doodle & the portrait was, “wow, not far from a burka.”

  3. “The Fossil Hunter” by Shelley Emling is an enjoyable and fascinating book about Mary Anning’s life and work. I enjoyed it very much. Anning certainly had a difficult life and made some stunning finds.

    1. In that vein, I just had what might be a very interesting thought about that earlier sidebar of detecting a Victorian-era civilization during the Age of Dinosaurs.

      …and that’s that there would have been the possibility for intelligent disruption of the geologic column, of fossils being dug up for research or curiosity or what-not and thus re-distributed in some very weird places. Any chances somebody would be likely to notice such a thing if stumbled upon? Such as, if a natural history museum were to get buried (say, by something like what happened at Vesuvius) and re-excavated an hundred million years later?

      b&

  4. There is a very nice story about her life and contributions (illustrated) in an article by Larry E. Davis, “Mary Anning of Lyme Regis: 19th Century in British Paleontology,” in The Faculty Journal of the College of St. Benedict and Saint John’s University, 26:96-120, for which see here ( ).

    Ms. Anning was also a remarkable illustrator

    In it is included the tongue twister she inspired, written in 1908. One respondent has included the first line but I include the other three:

    She sells sea-shells on the sea-shore/ The shells she sells are sea-shells, I’m sure/ For if she sells sea-shells on the sea-shore/ Then I’m sure the sells sea-shore shells.

  5. It was 1840. Women couldn’t be members of the Royal Society, nor the London Geological Society – in fact, women were not even permitted to attend meetings as guests. In addition, members were preferably Anglican but her family belonged to a splinter group of dissenting Congregationalists, spiritually related to the earlier Puritans. Religious and gender prejudice kept Mary Anning from being published (except a single “letter to the editor”), but male colleagues discreetly sought her advice regarding fossils they couldn’t identify. When she became deathly ill from cancer, those geologists created a fund to help with her expenses. Upon her death members of the Geological Society erected a memorial in her honour. The inscription reads, in part, “in commemoration of her usefulness in furthering the science of geology, also of her benevolence of heart and integrity of life.”

  6. Well worth a visit to Lyme Regis Museum. Anning’s story is part of the magic of the place. I own a painting by an artist who works opposite the museum, showing 7 faces of mammalian evolution spanning 65 million years from Purgatorius to modern man. I would defy anyone to see it and deny the transparent continuity from shrew to sapiens.

  7. Tracy Chevalier’s wonderful novel “Remarkable Creatures” is based on Mary Anning–in fact, that’s how I found out about her. In the novel (seems likely this is realistic)there’s a shop that sells fossils; the family members go out and scour the surrounding area for fossils to sell to tourists. Selling sea shells at the sea shore indeed.

  8. I remember being told/read her story at primary school (I live near where she found the dinos).

    Although she got limited credit during her life (women had not got the vote, and the working-class were under-appreciated, so being both stood in her way), she was a great influence to our history.

  9. Seems geologists like dogs.
    Douglas Houghton first Michigan geologist. He died young doing a survey in the upper Peninsula of Michigan. As a geologist I to have a dog, a yellow lab.

    “On October 13, 1845 Houghton was conducting a geological survey of the Lake Superior region when the boat he was in capsized in a storm. Houghton and two companions drowned. His remains were discovered the next spring and returned to Detroit, where they were buried in Elmwood Cemetery. Today there are several municipalities and location throughout Michigan named after Houghton, including the city of Houghton, Mich., Houghton Lake and Douglas Houghton Falls. There is also a plant named after him: Houghton’s Goldenrod, a variety he discovered in 1839 along the southern shore of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.”

  10. How many male paleontologists existed before her? She was a groundbreaker for the field.

    Another early female paleontologist (and geologist) was Etheldred Benett (1776-1845) though unlike Anning, she was well-to-do. Like Anning she was not a member of any official scientific society though often consulted.

    BTW the Royal Society was notoriously late in admitting women.

  11. Amazing!

    I just finished reading “Remarkable Creatures”, and indeed Chevalier did a wonderful job telling the story of Mary Anning and recreating an age long gone.

    The next book I picked up to (re)read was Simon Winchester’s lyrical “The Map that Changed the World”, about William Smith, the founder of geology,and he mentions both Anning and Etheldred Bennett.

    What a joy it is to read really good writers.

    1. I can also highly recommend Winchester’s Krakatoa which has quite a bit about Wallace in it.

  12. …. No celebration of her achievements would be complete without “Fossil Hunter” by Fairport Convention (Over the next Hill) playing in the background. The song picks up on the she sells sea shells theme… Is this perhaps the only song about Mary Anning?

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