Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Fossil Hunter by Shelley Emling

At a recent local book discussion about Hamlet, some members expressed astonishment that Shakespeare could’ve written so well about so many things considering he’d never attended university. I took umbrage, as a college degree doesn’t necessarily mean one is intelligent (case in point: Sarah Palin and Former President George W. Bush both graduated from college). Later, I wish I had mentioned Thomas Edison, an overachiever without a degree. Mary Anning, the subject of this review, is another.
If you don’t know her name, don’t feel bad, she is one of the unsung heroes of science; a person who made great advancements in her field, but because of time and gender, was never given the recognition she deserved.
Mary Anning spent her whole life(1799-1847) in the English coastal town of Lyme Regis, making some of the most important discoveries in paleontology of the century. She grew up in a poor family, her father’s trade was as carpenter, but he spent most of the time exploring the chalk cliffs on the beach, where Mary and her brother learned to look for fossils. These were the cliffs which provided the large fossils which Mary found later, beginning in 1810 with the first ichthyosaur ever seen. She subsequently unearthed various types of plesiosaurs, ancient fishes and the first British pterodactyl. But this did not lead to fame and fortune for Mary, despite her being in contact with museums and many of the leading minds in the new science of fossils. In fact, since women weren’t allowed to attend meetings of scientific societies nor submit writings for publication, some of those ‘gentlemen’ took credit for her work, presenting her findings as their own. But others tried to help her, one scientist, Henry De la Beche published a lithograph featuring called “A More Ancient Dorset” (at right) to raise funds for her.It featured living versions of most of the fossils she had discovered. She was eventually able to open a small fossil shop in the front room of a house she bought, turning the basement into a lab where she dissected local fish and rays to learn comparative anatomy.
The book set Anning’s story amongst the current events of the time, as well as changes in attitude towards evolution, science and religion. I was quite startled at the descriptions of how people perceived the natural world before evolution was introduced and how Louis Agassiz shocked a lecture audience when he described the Ice Age.
The book includes extensive notes, a timeline of discoveries, a section of black and white illustrations of people, places and some of Anning’s fossils. For some reason, I preferred this book to Tracy Chevalier’s novel of the same woman Remarkable Creatures, though they both highlight the career of a person, who, despite having only a few years of formal education, had a huge impact on not only the then new science of paleontology, but how we see the world today.

Palgrave MacMillan 2009 234 pp. ISBN 0-230-61156-7

Jackie has been interested in dinosaurs ever since she can remember. Unlike most kids, it’s something she never outgrew.

11 comments on “The Fossil Hunter by Shelley Emling

  1. Laura T
    September 19, 2011

    Thanks for this review; this sounds like a really interesting book. I found the Tracy Chevalier novel about Mary Anning frustrating because it wasn’t really pacy enough to be a novel, yet distorted the facts too much to be good history, so a proper biographical treatment of Anning might be a good antidote!

  2. lisa
    September 19, 2011

    What a brilliant post, Jackie! Anning sounds like she had a really interesting life. I’d like to learn more about her. Thanks for the fascinating review.

  3. John
    September 19, 2011

    A fascinating review of what seems to be a very interesting book.
    It’s obviously true that “Education doesn’t make you smarter”- Solzhenitsyn.
    I read that Pearl Earing wotsit but haven’t read the Chevalier mentioned above. Maybe she’s a bit of an acquired taste with her creamy prose.
    Many thanks,
    John.

  4. Hilary
    September 19, 2011

    This sounds great, Jackie! Wonderful find. I’m interested in how women pushing themselves out on a limb were sometimes supported intellectually by a man or men, who nevertheless couldn’t quite make the connection between the genius of an individual woman and a general point about women’s worth in society. It reminds me of Beatrix Potter’s discovery of the nature of lichens – and in my own library world I’ve recently come across a woman writing on devotional subjects in the 17th century, Susannah Hopton, who was encouraged by male mentors, but still felt the need to publish under the pseudonym of ‘An Humble Penitent’ (although research tends to suggest that it was her choice to remain anonymous).

    Ah well …………

  5. Chris Harding
    September 19, 2011

    I have read about Mary Anning before, but this sounds fascinating – much better than Tracy Chevalier I imagine. I always read Chevalier because I think I ought to like her and I never do, and I can’t pinpoint what it is that I don’t like, so I’m always disappointed… I have the same problem with Phillipa Gregory…

  6. Llyn
    September 20, 2011

    Mary Anning is one of my personal heroines. Ever since I read about in a book-club book in primary school. I have no idea what its name was, but it had an orange cover……

  7. Amy L. Campbell
    September 20, 2011

    This is very much going on my reading list. Hope I can find a copy here in Alabama. They’re not big on the whole evolution thing. -.-

  8. Victoria Oldham
    September 20, 2011

    I totally love this book. It’s stunning.

  9. Pingback: Pterosaurs by Mark P. Witton | Vulpes Libris

  10. ABB
    July 14, 2014

    Jackie: For a terrific docufiction account of the life of Mary Anning, I heartily recommend “Curiosity: A Love Story” by Joan Thomas (2010). The novel didn’t get the recognition it deserved, but I think it is quite brilliant. I much preferred it to Tracy Chevalier’s version. I wrote a review of Thomas’s novel for a geological society newsletter called Geolog (pp. 11-13). If you are interested, you can download a copy here http://www.gac.ca/wp/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Summer2012_GEOLOG_41_Number2.pdf

  11. Jackie
    July 14, 2014

    Thank you, ABB for the recommendations and link. I’ll check them out!

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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