January 5, 2010
We don’t usually give much thought to who discovered a fossil. Museums rarely include much more information than species name and the state or country where the remains were found.
The exception, in several museums in England at least, is fossils found by Mary Anning in the early 19th century. And two new books, one biography and one novel, bring her story to life.
Mary was born in 1799 in Lyme Regis, on the southern coast of England. Her father was a cabinetmaker who preferred to hunt for fossils, but neither occupation brought the family much money. When he died in 1810, he left behind a pregnant wife, two children and a large debt. Mary and her brother took to fossil hunting for survival.
Her brother found what he thought was a crocodile head in 1811 and charged Mary with removing it from the rock and searching for the rest of the skeleton. (Mary often gets credit for the discovery, though that is not technically correct.) She eventually dug out the skull and 60 vertebrae, selling them to a private collector for the handsome sum of £23. But it was no common crocodile. It was an Ichthyosaurus, a “fish-lizard,” and the first of many amazing finds.
Mary’s brother would become an upholsterer, leaving fossil hunting to his sister. She would become one of the most prolific fossil hunters of the time, discovering more ichthyosaurs along with long-necked plesiosaurs, a pterodactyl and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other fossils.
Though she had little formal education, Mary taught herself geology, paleontology, anatomy and scientific illustration. She corresponded with, provided fossils for and sometimes hunted with well-known scientists of the time, such as William Buckland and Richard Owen (who would coin the word “dinosaur” in 1842). Her finds were key to the reconstruction of Earth’s past and the development of the theory of evolution (as well as the development of several scientists’ careers).
But Mary never published a scientific paper of her own—men wrote up her finds. Even if she had written one, it was unlikely that it would have been published because she was female. Mary was never wealthy. Until a friend convinced the British Association for the Advancement of Science to provide her with an annuity of £25 per year, she was always one accident away from total destitution. And though the Geological Society marked her 1847 death from breast cancer a year later in a president’s address (a rare honor), the organization didn’t admit its first female member until 1904. Even today many of her finds will never be associated with her name, the records lost long ago.
Mary is now emerging from history. The Natural History Museum in London, for instance, has made her and her finds the main attraction of their Fossil Marine Reptiles gallery. The Lyme Regis Museum stands on the site of her birth. She is the subject of several children’s books. And the Geological Society has placed one of her ichthyosaur skulls and a portrait of her and her dog in their front reception hall.
A new biography, The Fossil Hunter by journalist Shelley Emling, tells Mary’s story in detail for the first time. The book is detailed and well researched, drawing on Mary’s own diaries when possible. And the story is captivating enough to forgive Emling for the slightly annoying habit of reconstructing her subject’s hypothetical thoughts and feelings.
Mary truly comes alive, though, in a novel published today: Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier, author of Girl With a Pearl Earring. Chevalier imagines Mary’s life into her twenties, told through both her own point of view and that of a friend, the older Elizabeth Philpot. There are conceivable explanations for mysteries of Mary’s life, such as why she never married and how one collector comes to sell all of his fossils and give the proceeds to Mary and her family. Chevalier knows how to tell a good tale, and her story of Mary is definitely that.
October 24, 2008
Earlier this year, Smithsonian published an article, “Where Dinosaurs Roamed,” that touched briefly on the war between the two men who started us down the path to our current dinosaur obsession:
“Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope were the two most prominent dinosaur specialists of the 1800s—and bitter enemies. They burned through money, funding expeditions to Western badlands, hiring bone collectors away from each other and bidding against one another for fossils in a battle of one-upmanship. They spied on each other’s digs, had their minions smash fossils so the other couldn’t collect them, and attacked each other in academic journals and across the pages of the New York Herald—making accusations of theft and plagiarism that tarnished them both.”
A reader wrote in the online comments that he thought that we left out one of the best insults: “I was told that after finding fossilized poop, Marsh, in honor of his rival named it coprolite, so that Cope would be associated in perpetuity.”
While it would have been a good insult, this is, unfortunately, not true. The term “coprolite” has its roots in the Greek language, derived from kopros, which means dung, and lithos, which means stone. The word was coined by William Buckland, an English geologist who was a dinosaur hunter before the term “dinosaur” had been created, before the Marsh and Cope war. Buckland found many coprolites and liked them so much, he even had a table made from a slab of inlaid dinosaur dung. The Lyme Regis Philpot Museum in England, which has the table, calls it “Buckland’s Dinosaur Poo Table”.