Today’s Google doodle celebrates the 215th birthday of Mary Anning, a 19th century fossil collector and paleontologist who, even as a poor working-class woman in a field dominated by wealthy upper-class men, helped shape the study of ancient extinct creatures in the early years of geology and paleontology.
Anning, born May 21, 1799, was "the greatest fossil hunter ever known," according to the National History Museum in London. She helped discover the first described ichthyosaur skeleton when she was just 12 years old; her older brother Joseph found the skull and she found the rest of the body. In her early 20s, she found the first two reported plesiosaur skeletons, along with a host of other major discoveries, and continued to uncover significant fossils throughout her life by combing the Blue Lias cliffs near her home in Dorset, England.
She made myriad other contributions to science. Her observations helped show that so-called bezoar stones, thought to have magical healing properties, were actually fossilized feces left by long-dead beasts. She also found fossilized ink sacs in squid-like fossils known as belemnites, and her friend and colleague Elizabeth Philpot even managed to restore the dried-up ink, which Anning used in her scientific illustrations.
As a woman, particularly one from the working class, Anning was not allowed to join the Geological Society of London, which was filled with rich, landowning men from England’s elite. But she was visited and consulted by giants of early 19th century geology and paleontology, including Charles Lyell and Adam Sedgwick (who taught Charles Darwin at the University of Cambridge).
Anning had very little education, learning to read and write from lessons at her church’s Sunday school. But she devoured articles in scientific journals, and her knowledge of fossils often outstripped the men who came to her fossil shop.
Anning, who died when she was 47 of breast cancer, was a remarkable paleontologist who, as a member of the working class and a religious minority, was frequently denied credit by the male paleontologists and researchers who studied and benefited from her work.
Writer Charles Dickens commented on Anning’s life in his literary magazine All the Year Round several years after her death.
“Her history shows what humble people may do, if they have just purpose and courage enough, towards promoting the cause of science,” Dickens wrote. Anning, he said, “has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.”