Writing is hard. What’s even harder is to write in a way that breathes life into a topic most readers see as dull. In Fossil Hunter: How Mary Anning Changed the Science of Prehistoric Life, Cheryl Blackford resuscitates a long forgotten hero as pivotal to the development of Earth Science and Natural History as the “hidden figures” who once helped NASA put this nation on moon.
Mary Anning, a poor British girl set out to feed her family as she dug fossils near Lyme Regis, Dorset. In 1812, the then-13-year-old she made a great find. It was the first ichthyosaur (Ichthysaur platyodon) to be studied by scientists. As several of the fossils she discovered, the rock skeleton is now in London’s Natural History Museum.
Blackford shows that her motive was plain. Anning did not start out to be a paleontologist, but curiosity and the instinct to discover the deeper truths about those natural treasures in the cliffs uncovered a scientist’s soul. That brought her to a destiny as a giant in paleontology. As readers will grasp, that is not hyperbole. As Blackford’s121-page manuscript, it is an attempt to give credit that she never got in life.
In the 19th century, the gender barriers kept her from the credit, not the work. Anning’s accomplishments publicly surfaced through distinguished males such as William Buckland, who in 1818 became Oxford University’s first geology professor. The doctor and geologist Gideon Mantell’s writing on dinosaurs was also influenced by the young woman’s discoveries. Moreso, unlike those males, she had to find ways outside institutions to fund her work.
Anning was aided by a few wealthy women friends’ money as she dug the plentiful fossils. They were strange impressions in stone, ignored by most people. Anning learned about the stony molds of the skeletons of dead animals from her father. He taught her to dig them and how to sell the finds to wealthy residents in the area and universities.
She taught herself to clean the bones of rock and debris, and was the first to present a complete Plesiosaurus fossil, which in 1823 was hailed as her greatest find. The next year she was the first to determine that bezoar stones found with many skeletons were actually fossilized feces. In 1828, she uncovered the first pterosaur or pterodactyl remains. The next year, she found the first squaloraja fossil (Squaloraja polyspondyla) , and in 1830 uncovered an even more complete fossil dubbed Plesiosaurus macrocephaleus.
At a time when educators want to see more youth, especially girls, drawn to science, Fossil Hunter through prose, images and illustrations shows that a humble person can make greatness. The developments that came from Anning changed science and its grasp on Earth’s development. The work is dynamic enough to grab the 10-year-old and up readers for which its intended. The author takes those readers on a deep dive into pretty heady facts. The saddest of which is how gender alone forced Anning’s accomplishments to go unacknowledged. Earth Science was a man’s domain. Blackford’s work goes a long way to push that farther into the past.