Thursday, October 6, 2016

Mary Anning

On 21 May 2014 Google Inc. honored the famous paleontologist Mary Anning on the anniversary of her birth with this Doodle on the homepage.

Mary Anning homage on Google today.  Image credit: Google Inc.Image credit: Google Inc.

Mary Anning (1799-1846) has been called "The Greatest Fossilist" in the world. The cliffs of Lyme Regis in Dorset, England were right at her back door and she had been exploring these cliffs for years. She became a fossil expert after years of collecting fossils to support her family after her father's death. She spent more than 30 years collecting and describing fossils found mostly in Jurassic age rock.

By the age of 12 Anning had discovered in rocks of the English countryside fossils that she would later describe as a plesiosaur, an early marine reptile. This find gained her much attention from fossils collectors worldwide.

William Buckland, an admirer of Mary’s work, described the first true dinosaur. Anning, Buckland and the French naturalist Georges Cuvier were instrumental in developing a picture of life in the Jurassic.

Cuvier was a devout Christian who regularly attended worship at his local Lutheran church. He regarded his faith as a private matter, but he identified himself with the Lutherans when he supervised governmental educational programs for Protestants. He was instrumental in founding the Parisian Biblical Society in 1818, where he later served as a vice president. From 1822 until his death in 1832, Cuvier was Grand Master of the Protestant Faculties of Theology of the French University.

Cuvier proposed that there had been an "age of reptiles" when reptiles would have been the dominant animal on earth rather than the mammals of today. This idea of earth’s biota changing over time presented a challenge to prevalent views of creation. (Read more here.)

Mary Anning became known for important finds she made in the Jurassic marine fossil beds at Lyme Regis. Her work contributed to fundamental changes in scientific thinking about prehistoric life and the history of the Earth. Mary's work drew considerable attention in England as most people believed in a young Earth and regarded this to be a Biblical view.

Fossil collecting was a popular hobby in the late 18th and early 19th century, but gradually developed into a science as the importance of fossils to geology and biology became better understood. Anning searched for fossils in the area's Blue Lias cliffs, particularly during the winter months when landslides exposed new fossils. It was dangerous work, and she barely escaped death in 1833 during a rockslide that killed her faithful canine companion.

In 2010, the Royal Society included Anning in a list of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science.

Mary Anning, though raised Congregationalist, questioned some of their beliefs.  She read the Congregationalists' Theological Magazine and Review for 1801. One essay insisted God created the universe in six, consecutive 24-hour days. Mary also read a model curriculum for Nonconformist schools urging Dissenters to study geology.

Mary's faith helped her take risks while fossil hunting. Her friend, Anna Maria Pinney, wrote in 1833 that after several mishaps on the cliffs
"The word of God is becoming precious to her after her late accident, being nearly crushed to death. I found it healing her mind."
Mary Anning died in 1846 from breast cancer. She was buried in the graveyard of St. Michael the Archangel Church in Lyme Regis. Her brother, who became church warden in 1846, was buried beside her in 1849. Raised Congregationalists, both brother and sister ended up Anglicans.

Related reading: Mary Anning of Dorset

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