A Wonderful Book for Mary Anning’s Birthday: The Fossil Hunter

The Fossil Hunter by Shelley Emling

Mary Anning deserves far more recognition than she gets. So, on the occasion of her 221st birthday, let me share with you a book that does her justice.

Shelley Emling traces the story of Mary’s life from before her birth to after her death. We are shown just how unlikely it was that a girl born in poverty, who was literally struck by lightning as a toddler(!!), should grow up to become one of the most renowned fossil hunters of her age.

Her story is absolutely amazing, and at several points heartbreaking. She lost her dad when she was a little girl. Only one of her siblings lived to adulthood. Her family was desperately poor. She never got the education she deserved. Because she was female, and science very much a male clubhouse, she often saw others taking credit for her discoveries and insights. She lost her dog to a landslide, and her life at a relatively young age to breast cancer. Shelley shies away from none of the bad stuff.

But the book can be summed up by a joyous “Nevertheless, she persisted.” This is a book full of scientific discovery, of the tenacity of a woman who did more than most men of science at the time could even dream of – and she did it in heavy skirts, virtually alone on the dangerous shore, with no formal education.

Shelley does an excellent job bringing Mary’s Lyme Regis alive, from the scenery to the fossils, from the town to the people. You feel the storms as they roar in, and Mary’s excitement as she scrambles down the cliffs in their wake to find the treasures they’ve revealed. You breathe the brisk sea air, as well as London’s oppressive coal-fired smog the one time Mary gets to visit the big city. You get to experience the hope and joy of uncovering a new species that will not only advance science, but stave off starvation.

Mary is shown vividly to not just be a fossil hunter, but a scientist in her own right. We’re never really told more about her than the bare details of her finding Jurassic fossils. Shelley shows her dissecting all manner of modern sea critters in order to better understand the extinct animals she’s finding in the Blue Lias cliffs. We see her begging scientific papers from the geologists who buy specimens from her, and painstakingly copying them, including replicating the drawings. We see her own original illustrations of her finds, as accurate and valuable as those produced by the top naturalists of her day. We see her holding her own in scientific disputes, even against some of the most renowned naturalists of her day.

She. Was. Amazing.

Shelley delves into the state of the young science of geology, and shows how some of its most famous founding fathers mentored Mary. She had close friendships and working relationships with men like William Buckland and Henry de la Beche. She earned the esteem of men like Louis Agassiz. She may have been stuck in a backwater town, at the bottom of the social ladder, but her talent gained her at least a small measure of the respect and recognition she deserved.

And Shelley shows us how women, too, supported and helped each other succeed. Mary had amazing women in her life. Mrs. Stock gifted her a geology book, a precious resource to a poor young girl. The Philpot sisters, paleontologists in their own right, lived in Lyme Regis, and were always keen to discuss fossils and steer some business her way. She and Charlotte Murchison spent weeks exploring the Jurassic cliffs together, and years more exchanging letters. She impressed noblewomen like Lady Harriet Silvester with her paleontological expertise. And she took young upper-class teenager Anna Maria Pinney under her wing, showing her how to find wonders in the cliffs.

Shelley has an eye for delightful details, like Buckland’s black mare, who would stop at quarries and expect her rider to want to inspect them. There’s lively investigation of fossil poop, which Mary recognized the importance of and helped Buckland investigate. And there are all sorts of side expeditions into the opening of museums, and the huffing of clergy when faced with evidence that contradicts the Biblical account of the world.

The only real quibble I had is Shelley’s tiring habit of using complicated verb tenses and continually qualifying her narrative when she doesn’t have absolute 100% proof something actually happened. It’s understandable, but excessive, and it detracts from the narrative when it’s happening constantly. I grew weary of “most likely would have” and “probably it was” and other such pedantries early on. Happily, they didn’t destroy my interest in this book. They just made it more of a slog than it should have been. And they get easier to bear as the book explores the little-known details of a fascinating scientist’s life.

If you want to get to know Mary Anning and her work, this book is a marvelous introduction. We need more like this on the other women whose contributions to the earth sciences have been unconscionably ignored.

A Wonderful Book for Mary Anning’s Birthday: The Fossil Hunter