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Female fossil hunter led to creation of paleontology

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The Fossil Hunter

Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World

By Shelley Emling

Palgrave Macmillan, 234 pages, $35

SHE sells sea shells by the sea shore."

Though Mary Anning is thought to be the "she" of this familiar tongue-twister, it did not make her famous.

But then, neither did her remarkable achievements as a self-educated geologist in early 19th-century England whose discoveries established the discipline of paleontology.

The Fossil Hunter, American-born journalist Shelley Emling's brilliant biography, should remedy the situation. Coincidentally, Anning is also the subject of Winnipeg writer Joan Thomas's much anticipated sophomore novel, Curiosity, due from McClelland & Stewart in April.

Anning's circumstances seemed certain to confine her to a life of obscurity and poverty. Except for attending a parish school briefly -- her family members were Dissenters (and therefore members of a fundamentalist Protestant minority in a largely Anglican population) -- she had no formal education. As a young woman, she had no prospect of attending university.

Yet Mary was "a rebel who carved out her own niche," Emling writes. By the time she was a teenager (she was born in 1799), she had become internationally known as the fossil finder digging up bones of creatures not previously known to exist. Even dinosaurs were still unknown in the early 1800s.

So how did she become the ultimate fossil hunter? After all, many people were collectors in England in the early 1800s.

Some attributed medicinal properties to fossils, such as ammonites (extinct mollusks). According to one theory, they were God's decorations, bubbling up from the earth.

Living all her life in the coastal town of Lyme Regis contributed to Anning's extraordinary success as a discoverer of fossils. The nearby geologically unstable coastline held the remains of "a baffling array of ancient reptiles."

It was an ideal area to dig for fossils, as Anning learned from her father, a cabinet-maker and carpenter who supplemented his meagre income with beachcombing.

It was he who started her in the business of selling fossils to tourists, generally wealthy travellers from London. Though her father died while she was still a young girl, as did her nearly a dozen siblings (save one brother), Mary had learned to add business sense to her intellectual prowess.

Her style of dress, including stovepipe hat and bulky clothes, reflected her profound individuality. She never married.

Emling reports that several scientists credit her with discoveries that led to the creation of paleontology as a discipline. In fact, they also led to the major concept of extinction, inasmuch as it trumped the earlier Bible-based assumption that no form of life preceded human beings.

It's not surprising that the likes of Charles Darwin, prophet of evolution, went to school on her findings.

Shortly before she died of breast cancer at age 48, Anning converted to Church of England, but Emling suggests it was a move "that might have indicated a hoped for rise in status and in her place in society."

Yet for all her effort and accomplishments, Anning remained virtually unknown until recent times. With chauvinistic regularity over the years, her male colleagues failed to acknowledge her publicly -- even when they reported her findings.

Emling learned of Anning's existence while visiting a small museum during a family holiday on England's so-called Jurassic Coast.

She explains how Anning eventually attracted prominent British and foreign scientists to the village of Lyme Regis, both to search for fossils and to learn from the knowledge she continued to acquire as a fossil-hunter.

Emling not only documents Anning's remarkable career but illustrates the intellectual debates she provoked with her discoveries, including in the Geological Society where women were not eligible for membership. And Emling writes with a style that makes The Fossil Hunter very hard to put down before reaching the last page.

Ron Kirbyson is a Winnipeg writer and teacher.

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 30, 2010 H7

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