October 2009

Colleen Mondor

nonfiction

The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World by Shelley Emling

As a former history teacher, I am continuously amazed by the number of significant historical figures about which I know little or nothing. When I first heard about Shelley Emling’s biography of Mary Anning, The Fossil Hunter, I realized that no one had ever written about her for adult readers before (do check out two excellent titles for children: Stone Girl Bone Girl by Laurence Anholt and The Fossil Girl: Mary Anning's Dinosaur Discovery by Catherine Brighton). This is partly due to the fact that most of Anning’s journals and personal papers have not survived; also because, as a woman in a male dominated field, her discoveries were often heralded, while she personally was not. Emling does an excellent job of knitting together a highly readable title on her life, reaching into sources for Anning’s contemporaries and scientific publications from the time which describes the fossils she found. Beyond the specifics, she writes about the larger issues presented by the discoveries and what they meant to societies who had placed their faith in the Bible and now were faced with evidence that extinction was real and life had existed on the planet far longer than any of them could imagine.

As Emling recounts, Anning grew up poor in the small coastal village of Lyme Regis in early 19th century England. To bring in extra money, her father collected small fossils in the seaside cliffs and sold them to tourists -- often taking Mary and her brother along on his hunts. After his untimely death, the family found itself facing both homelessness and starvation. To survive, the children set back out to the cliffs in search of ammonites and other curiosities for wealthy visitors. In 1811, at only the age of twelve, Mary made a massive discovery -- she found the first dinosaur skeleton ever. Her ichthyosaur would go on to change not only her life but the lives of everyone in the scientific world.

You cannot overstate Mary Anning’s initial discovery, or the many equally spectacular finds that followed. Emling explains that unlike today, where arguments about creationism and evolution abound but no one doubts the existence of the dinosaurs, in the early 19th century it was believed that every creature ever born still existed in the world. The very nature of extinction was debatable, let alone the question of evolution. Presented with irrefutable evidence that fantastical creatures had existed and could no longer be found (although some clung the belief they were still out there somewhere), geologists and biologists had to rethink everything they thought they knew about the world. These discussions transformed and expanded as more and more people took to the field and more fossils were found. It proved to be both difficult and enlightening. This was the time when the word “dinosaurian" was coined -- when the study of fossils became a life’s work and private collectors vied with museums for the greatest and boldest discoveries.

Mary Anning, at the center of it all because of her fossils, was completely absent from the scholarly pursuits and publications. Because of her lower social class and gender, she remained someone the scientists could not ignore (and often relied upon heavily) but conversely, was easy to forget. Time and again, Emling recounts a meeting of great men who discuss Anning’s fossils without mentioning her name. The author does not have to rail against the social constraints of the day to make her point -- the evidence speaks for itself.

Mary Anning rewrote the science and history books, but no one thought to credit her and sadly, much of her groundbreaking work was lost by indifference, neglect and laziness. We know so much because of Mary Anning, but as Emling makes clear, we sadly know very little about Mary Anning, something the author does a wonderful job of changing here.

One last note: fans of the nursery rhyme “She sells seashells on the seashore” will appreciate that it was based on the life of Anning, as Emling explains in the text. This pop culture fame (which unfortunately does not include any specifics) is further proof of just how pervasive Anning’s discoveries were during her lifetime. Emling has gone a long way toward rescuing this working class woman, whose struggles are so easily identifiable to modern readers, and giving her a share of the scientific limelight she deserves. It is rare that readers discover someone like them who changed the world. That’s Mary Anning however, and as Shelley Emling shows, it wasn’t easy. But she did it anyway and now, at last, we can appreciate how.

 

The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World by Shelley Emling
Palgrave Macmillan
ISBN: 0230611567
256 pages

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