Mary Anning: The 12-Year-Old That Discovered the First Dinosaur

A guest post by Yael Gazit

Everyone who has ever watched Friends knows what Ross’s job is (Paleontology), but have you ever wondered where this fascinating subject emerged?
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One of the researchers who paved the way for fossil research was Mary Anning. Even as a child, she would walk along the river and find fossils from the Jurassic era. The fossils that she collected contributed to a fundamental change in scientific thinking about ancient life and the history of the earth. Although she never acquired a formal education, she is considered one of the ten most influential British women in the history of science. She was born in Durst, England, on May 21st, 1799, to a family of carpenters. Not just any carpenters but real wood people. But it was a different type of wood encounter than changed her life. 

In August 1800, when Anning was only 15 months old, she was being held by a neighbor who stood under a tree with two other women. Suddenly, lightening hit the tree and killed the three women. Mary was miraculously saved, and for years her curiously and easygoing personality was considered to be a result of that event. 

Perhaps it was because of the lightening, and perhaps not, but Mary spent most of her childhood in nature. Her carpenter father would collect fossils he found in the beach cliffs by their house and sell them to tourists. When Mary joined him, they collected and studied the fossils together. Anning’s formal education was limited. She learned how to read and write at church, but not much more. 

Even without a formal education, she became a groundbreaking scientist, and made her first discovery at the age of 12. Her most famous finding was a Ichthyosaurus skeleton that she and her brother found in 1811. They initially believed it to be a crocodile skeleton, but she quickly realized it was a different animal, one that had been unknown until then. She called the animal Ichthyosaurus (lizard fish in Latin). 

The skeleton was sold for only  23£ and was presented in London. There, captured people’s attention and raised questions about the history of living creatures the the planet’s age. At the time, most people believed in theology and that God created all creatures. Science slowly started to star in a bigger role. But her discoveries didn’t end there, and ten years later she discovered the Plesiosauria. 

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Aning became well-known in geological circles in Britan and throughout Europe. Still, as a woman she was not allowed to join the Geological Association of London and didn’t always receive full recognition despite her many discoveries.  She published one scientific paper in her life, which was published in the Journal of Natural History. In the paper, she criticized some of the claims that appeared in the journal. colleague, Henry De la Beche, a London native, received the recognition. He rose to fame after becoming the first director of the Geological Survey of Great Britain, helped pioneer the first methods of geological research, and became the first President of the Palaeontographical Society.
Aning herself passed away in 1847, at the age of 47, almost completely anonymous. Years would pass before other researchers would prove that the world existed millions of years, and that wonderful creatures lived in it before man came into the world.

Mary Anning was memorialized in the book Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier (the author of the book The Girl With the Pearl Necklace).

Today, we can say that she was ahead of her time. Her discoveries challenged popular perceptions of the creation of the world and sparked discussions about the origin of man. The world was not ready for a woman in a male-dominated academic arena, but today she is considered one of the greatest fossil explorers who ever existed. Ross, who never gets tired of dinosaurs, also thanks her.

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