Mary Anning: Why is British fossil collector and palaeontologist so important?

Google Doodle has decided to celebrate Anning's 215th birthday - this is why

Heather Saul
Monday 08 September 2014 15:16
Google Doodle marks Mary Anning's 215th birthday
Google Doodle marks Mary Anning's 215th birthday

Google has celebrated the 215th birthday of Mary Anning, the British fossil collector and palaeontologist responsible for some of the most significant geological discoveries of all time.

Anning’s birthday is honoured because her important discoveries challenged the predominant beliefs surrounding palaeontology during the 19 century, providing key pieces of evidence to contradict theories on extinction and evolution.

Her observations were central to the discovery that bezoar stones were actually fossilised faeces following her correspondence with William Buckland, a lecturer on geology at the University of Oxford.

Anning was initially introduced to palaeontology because of her family’s dire financial situation. Born into relative poverty, Anning and her father Richard would collect fossils from cliffs at Lyme Regis to sell and make ends meet with. She would later continue to sell fossils to support herself following her father's death.

Discovering a complete Pleisosaur, crocodile-like Icthyosaur skeletons and other high quality fossils allowed her to save and purchase her own home, which she would transform into the Anning's Fossil Depot, attracting visitors from around the world. These visitors included the King of Saxony and geologist George William Featherstonhaugh, who described her as a "very clever, funny creature".

The validity of her discovery of the first Plesiosaur was initially doubted by the renowned French anatomist and palaeontologist, Georges Cuvier, but when he later realised it was a genuine find and pronounced it a major discovery, Anning became a respected member of the scientific community.

Despite growing up as a female in a working class family and lacking a formal education, she taught herself about geology and anatomy, breaking through the limitations brought by her gender and social status at that time and making her achievements later in life all the more significant.

Her fame was secured in 1820 when one of the family’s patrons auctioned specimens he had bought from the Annings - drawing interest in Anning from Britain and across Europe.

In her later years, Anning would assist the Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz, a prominent proponent of the Ice Age theory. She died in 1847 from breast cancer, aged 47.

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