If you don’t know who this person is, you should—especially if you’re a fan of science. Today’s Google Doodle (which I heard about from a UK friend last night), honors Mary Anning, whose 215th birthday is today (she died in 1847, 12 years before Darwin published On the Origin of Species).
She was the first well-known female paleontologist (in fact, I know of no other female paleontologists before her, though perhaps there were some who languished in obscurity), and made marvelous discoveries on the Jurassic Coast of Southern England, in Dorset. I’ve wandered the gorgeous shores where she prospected, and seen some of her finds in museums. She was no gentlewoman naturalist with an independent income, like Darwin, for she came from the working classes and always had to support herself, which makes her accomplishments all the more remarkable.
And here is her Doodle:
Her most famous finds (Wikipedia gives a good account) were marine reptiles: plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs (she was the first to find a fossil of the latter); but she discovered a lot of other stuff, including fossil fish and invertebrates. Wikipedia notes:
Anning’s discoveries became key pieces of evidence for extinction. Georges Cuvier had argued for the reality of extinction in the late 1790s based on his analysis of fossils of mammals such as mammoths. Nevertheless, until the early 1820s it was still believed by many scientifically literate people that just as new species did not appear, so existing ones did not become extinct—in part because they felt that extinction would imply that God’s creation had been imperfect; any oddities found were explained away as belonging to animals still living somewhere in an unexplored region of the earth. The bizarre nature of the fossils found by Anning, some, such as the plesiosaur, so unlike any known living creature, struck a major blow against this idea.
The ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and pterosaur she found, along with the first dinosaur fossils which were discovered by Gideon Mantell and William Buckland during the same period, showed that during previous eras the earth was inhabited by creatures very different from those living today, and provided important support for another controversial suggestion of Cuvier’s: that there had been an “age of reptiles” when reptiles rather than mammals had been the dominant form of animal life.
As a woman in a man’s profession, particularly in that era, she had a rough time, ineligible to join the geological societies that harbored her colleagues, and galled by seeing other people—men—given credit for her finds. Her life was no bed of roses, and she died at 47 of breast cancer, knowing, at least, that her work and its importance had been widely recognized.
In many ways she is the Rosalind Franklin of geology, but now every geologist knows of her. And rightly so.