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.
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.