Friday, June 10, 2011


Curiosity is Joan Thomas' fascinating fictionalized account of the life of early 19th Century British paleontologist Mary Anning .  Have you heard of her?  Probably not.  But in 2010 she was named by the Royal Society as one of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science!

Anning's is a sad story of an extremely bright and focused person, held back by gender and social class.  The upper class scientists of the day alternated between brazenly appropriating her work, and vehemently denying that her finds were authentic.  She was not allowed to become a member of the Royal Society that would name her as so influential. 

Mary Anning
Extremely poor and self-educated but for learning to read over a few months in Sunday school, Anning had an instinct for finding fossils in the layered shale of the Dorset coast.  Not only did she collect these fossils in all seasons and with great hardship, she was the the expert in identifying them, and she was painstaking in her documentation of them.

Anning supported herself (barely) by selling her small fossil finds as curiosites at an open-air table that met the coaches bringing tourists to Lyme Regis.  She sold her large discoveries, such as the first Ichthyosaurus ever found, to rich collectors.  And guess what - in the early annals of paleontology, those finds were credited to the men who purchased them not to Anning who found and identified them.

The world was bubbling with new ideas at the time.  Lyell was revolutionizing geology by arguing that the earth changed over long periods of time.  Lamarck was arguing for the evolution of species (although he didn't have the missing link of genetics).  And Darwin was soon to publish his theories.  

However, the scientific establishment in England hadn't adopted these ideas yet, and they were still trying to fit Anning's discoveries into a narrow interpretation of the Bible: the earth was only 6,000 years old and species were created once by God and never changed.  So, sometimes rather than claiming her finds for their own, they would instead publish attacks on their authenticity.  As Henry de la Beche, Mary's longtime friend and colleague, puts it, "Our efforts are more and more contorted, to make the evidence of nature fit with a few cryptic lines of Scripture".

Mary never married.  In the book, she and de la Beche are  not just colleagues but friends and even lovers, but social conventions would never allow them to be together.  Anning collected fossils all her life, and lived in extreme poverty the whole time.  When she was nearly destitute, one of the collectors who had bought many fossils from her, put his entire collection up for auction and gave the money to Anning, about the only favour Anning ever received from anyone in the book.  

Mary Anning in her top hat
As she grew older, Mary adopted more eccentric dress, wearing a top hat to the shore.  In another quote from Henry de la Beche, "It's not the top hat that accounts for our discomfort with Mary Anning.  It is Mary Anning's superior knowledge in all subjects related to her field.  It is her refusal to pander to male vanity and pretend that the gentlemen with whom she discources have come to this knowledge before her."

British women haven't fared well in getting credit for their work.  Anning is one of the earliest women in the Royal Society's list.   Rosalind Franklin is the second last.  Many think she should have shared the Nobel prize for the discovery of DNA; without Franklin's meticulous radiography, the discovery would never have been made.  

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