The bad news about this Sistory post is that it’s going to be about YET ANOTHER woman who was denied credit for her scientific discoveries. (Our buds Mary Kenner, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin and Hedy Lamarr are not amused.)
The good news is, at least she got a dope nursery rhyme to her name.
Yep. Turns out, that lil ditty about a gal named Sally selling seashells down by the seashore is about a real lady!
Her name was Mary Anning, and while Mary melling meashells down by the meashore doesn’t make nearly as much sense, once you learn a bit about her, you may agree that she deserves at least a rhyme including her name.
…And also way more credit in the scientific community.
Many parts of the tongue-twister are true. Mary did grow up by the seashore in England, where she and her siblings sold “curiosities” to tourists. The Annings were extremely poor, and her father died when she was only 11, so Mary sold these seashells instead of going to school. She taught herself to read and write.
But turns out, that “seashore” is part of what we now call the “Jurassic Coast,” and those “curiosities” weren’t really seashells at all. They were fossils.
In 1811, when Mary was just 12 years old, she dug up a skull on the beach. She kept digging and eventually excavated the creature’s 16-foot-long skeleton. She had just discovered the first ichthyosaur.
It would be impressive for a 12-year-old to discover a 16-foot, well-preserved dinosaur skeleton anytime. But to do it in 1811 was particularly interesting. Because a lot of things that are settled facts today were brand new concepts back then.
The concept of extinction had only been proven less than a decade ago in scientific circles and was slowly trickling into the real world. Charles Darwin hadn’t yet landed on the theory of evolution. The word “dinosaur” wouldn’t be used for another 30 years. Many scientists at the time thought that fossils were evidence of monsters or a race of giant humans that once roamed the earth.
Scientists thought that. Scientists.
But while these scientists were busy discussing whether the bones came from the Kraken or the Loch Ness Monster or an ancestor of Hagrid, Mary Anning just kept digging them up.
In 1823, at the age of 24, she discovered what would go on to be named the Plesiosaurus. She discovered the first fossilized creature with wings outside of Germany, a creature we now call the Pterodactyl. She also pioneered the study of fossilized poop! It’s not glamorous, but someone’s gotta do it, okay.
And Mary Anning was not in this game for the glamour. Male scientists – or what they just called “scientists” back then – would regularly buy Mary’s fossils to study and then present the findings as their own. She was almost never credited in their work.
She also sold fossils to collectors and rich people. When those fossils eventually ended up in museums, they were credited to the donor – not the discoverer.
Mary Anning’s legacy was all but forgotten for many, many years.
Even as she earned some acclaim, Mary remained extremely poor throughout her life, which ended at the age of 47. She died of breast cancer in the same small town where she grew up. The Geological Society of London, which had refused to admit her (or any women, actually, until 1904) ran her obituary in their quarterly journal.
In an article written by Charles Dickens before her death, Mary said, “The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone.”
Today, she’s remembered in paleontology circles as one of the greatest fossil finders in history. But outside that world, she’s best known as some girl named Sally who sold some seashells down by the seashore.
So I’m proposing a new tongue-twister:
Mary Anning Discovered Many Magnificent Marvels That Men Made Many Believe They’d Discovered, But They Didn’t They Were Just Stepping On A Woman To Get Ahead And Isn’t That The Way It Always Goes.
Well, I’ll keep working on it.