Today’s factismal: The most famous paleontologist in the early 1800s was a citizen scientist.
Back in the late 1700s and early 1800s, science (or, as they called it, natural philosophy) was a gentleman’s game. It took money and leisure to do the experiments that transformed alchemy into chemistry and turned biology from a descriptive science into a predictive one and invented meteorology. Since most of the leisure time (and all of the money) was held by gentlemen at the time, they were the ones who got most of the credit for the sciences. But they did surprisingly little of the work. For example, most of the discoveries about what makes electricity and magnetism work were made by Michael Faraday, the son of a poor blacksmith; only a lucky meeting with a well-to-do chemist allowed Faraday to work in the laboratory where he made his discoveries. And at that, he was far more fortunate than Mary Anning who spent her life scrabbling to find fossils and barred from entry into the Royal Society (Britain’s main scientific society) by her sex.
Mary Anning was born in 1799 on the south coast of England. That accident of geography would come to dominate her life. At the time, there was a mania in England for two things: summers by the sea and collecting “oddities”. Mary’s home had plenty of both. The wide beach and nearby railroad turned her village into a popular resort. And the crumbling limestone cliffs provided an nigh-well endless supply of “devil’s fingers” and “snake stones” (today we call them belemenites and ammonites) to sell to the tourists. Mary soon joined in on the frivolity, selling fossils and searching for more. But unlike the others, Mary didn’t earch haphazardly and she didn’t just search during the summer. Instead, she went out after winter storms, when new cliff had been exposed by the pounding waves, and picked up what she could.
And what she could pick up was simply amazing. When she was 12, she and her father found one of the first known ichtyosaur skeletons. Soon she would add two pliesosaurs and a pterosaur along with countless ammonites and beleminites to the list. She was so successful that by the time she was 27, she had saved up enough money to buy a shop eponyously named Anning’s Fossil Depot. And she didn’t restrict herself to finding the fossils. She also examined them, carefully. She was the first to identify beleminites as relatives of the cuttlefish based on a fassilized ink sac. More disgustingly, she also identified the lumpy brownish stones that were common in the area as coprolites (fossilized poop). Despite her extensive knowledge of fossils and close relationships with paleontologists across Europe, she was unable to publish any of her discoveries in scientific journals as she was “only” a self-taught woman.
Sadly, Mary Anning died of breast cancer when she was just 47. After her death, her legend grew and her numerous contributions to the science were finally given their due. If you’f like to learn more about Mary and her many contributions, the best place to start is in a Victorian jouranl. And while you are reading through it, you might do a little science of your own. The Science Gossip website is looking for citizen scientists to sort through Victorian journals and help them classify the images and trace the origins of the species known today as citizen scientists. To learn more, climb over to: