She Sells Seashells: Celebrating International Women’s Day with Mary Anning, Pioneer of Paleontology

Mary Anning (1799-1847)

Mary Anning (1799-1847)

She sells seashells on the seashore
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure
So if she sells seashells on the seashore
Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.

Sound familiar? That poem may be the most memorable tongue twister ever written but it doesn’t begin to do justice to the woman who inspired it. Mary Anning (1799-1847) was a fossil collector and paleontologist in Great Britain whose achievement went largely unrecognized in her lifetime precisely because she was a woman. At that time people didn’t think it was possible (or proper) for women to be as smart and self-educated as she. It’s widely thought that she developed a theory of evolution before Charles Darwin did, but SINCE she was a woman she was unable to create a forum for her ideas. An avid fossil collector from a poor background, Anning collected fossils because of her fascination with them and also to help support her family, who ran a cabinetry business and small rock shop.

Anning is most famous for discovering the Ichthyosaur alongside her brother Joseph when she was just 12 years old, but she continued to discover, study and write about about fossils and paleontology throughout her life. She discovered evidence of the first Plesiosaur, which was significant enough to be presented at Britain’s prestigious Geological Society but was done so without crediting her for the discovery or any of her subsequent work with those fossils. (Some have hypothesized that the mythical Loch Ness Monster may be a plesiosaur - it’s not.)

It wasn’t until 1908 that poet Terry Williams was so inspired by Anning’s life story that he wrote the seashell poem in her honor, but given all that she accomplished and endured it does not do her justice. On this International Women’s Day we recognize her for her brave, inspiring pursuit of paleontology against the odds and norms of her time. Kids can learn more about her through the adventures of Benson and Anita in Tumblehome Learning’s The Furious Case of the Fraudulent Fossil.

Letter and drawing from Mary Anning announcing the discovery of a fossil animal now known as Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus, 26 December 1823 image credit: wikipedia

Letter and drawing from Mary Anning announcing the discovery of a fossil animal now known as Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus, 1823
image credits: wikipedia

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