In 1810, a twelve year old girl and her brother found the first complete fossil of an ichthyosaurus. Her name was Mary Anning, and she lived in England. Mary was poor, self-educated, and an avid fossil hunter who often sold her treasures. She formed a friendship with Elizabeth Philpot, an older, middle class woman who collected fossil fish as a hobby. Mary mentions Elizabeth frequently in her letters, and it appears the two women went out fossil hunting together on a regular basis.
Little is known about these two woman, but Tracy Chevalier created a wonderful fiction novel depicting their friendship and discoveries. Remarkable Creatures, published in 2009, is a great book, and Chevalier writes sympathetically of Mary Anning's fossil discoveries, her dealings with the more sophisticated men who came to see her fossils and increase their scientific knowledge, and her friendship with Elizabeth Philpot. Chevalier skillfully brings to life this wonderful story and early 1800s England. Mary gains a level of acceptance in the scientific world for her discoveries and knowledge. During Mary Anning's lifetime, fossil finds rocked the scientific and religious world. Paleontology was in its infancy. How did fossil finds fit into the creation of the world laid out in the Bible? What did the geologic record say? How could religion and science be reconciled? It was a challenging time to be a woman, fossil hunter, and self-educated paleontologist.
Today, you can visit the town of Lyme Regis and see the beach and crumbling cliffs where Mary made her discoveries. Many people used to visit Elizabeth Philpot's fossil fish collection in her home in Lyme Regis. Today, you can visit the Lyme Regis Philpot Museum. The museum houses more than just fossils, however. Jane Austen spent time in Lyme Regis, and even used the setting for part of her novel, Persuasion. The museum also boasts some Jane Austen items.
Beach at Lyme Regis
Mary Anning died at the age of 47 of breast cancer. The contributions she made to geology and science were certainly significant. Happy Birthday to this early paleontologist!
Mary Anning's headstone, Lyme Regis, England
Tracy Chevalier has great information about her book, Mary Anning, fossils, and more on her website.