Unearthing our Prehistoric Past

Mary Anning was born in England in 1799. Her parents came from a modest income family, and her father collected fossils to sell the tourists to supplement their family income. Mary was one of only two surviving children out of ten children born to her parents.

Mary had only a limited education obtained from her Sunday school attendance at a Congregation church. The Church of England did not promote education for the poor.

Her hometown was located on the seaside and had become a popular tourist location. Many of those living in her hometown sold items to the wealthy who came to their community for vacations. This became an opportunity for Mary to help out her family by selling fossils.

The coastal cliffs around her community were unstable and landslides were frequent, especially after storms. These landslides were a great source of fossil discoveries. Mary became fascinated with fossils as she worked with her father on his trips. Her father’s early death made fossil collections even more important to the family.

A wealthy customer of the Anning family held an auction of his purchases from them to help them survive. This also helped establish the Anning family’s reputation as fossil collectors.

Mary was the primary fossil collector in the family and over time made some of the most important discoveries of prehistoric skeletons. As was common for its time, Mary was not allowed to join the Geologic Society of London.

She was befriended by a male geologist who developed visual images of prehistoric life based on the fossils that Mary had discovered. The prints from these images provided a source of income for Mary. Even more importantly, she became known for her knowledge of fossils.

Mary’s financial difficulties continued throughout much of her life. She died at the age of 47 from breast cancer. Mary’s story is one that is too frequent. Women never get the credit for their achievements, especially in scientific fields. They are true hidden heroes but regrettably, they are still little known today when they could serve as role models for women with STEM interests.                                                     

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“Through the study of fossils I had already been initiated into the mysteries of prehistoric creations.” – Pierre Loti (novelist)

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