If you’re a fan of Google doodles, you might have noticed the May 21, 2014 one, which featured a woman in a green coat and yellow hat dusting away at a large dinosaur skeleton. Who was this person, and what exactly did she do to earn a spot on Google’s home page?
Mary Anning was born in 1799 to a cabinet maker who loved collecting fossils. The family lived on the coastline of Lyme Regis in England, where lots of fossils lay ready to be found in muddy sea floor. As a child, Mary would climb the rocky beaches with him in search of ancient treasures. Her father spent more and more time looking for fossils, and began a business selling them. When he died, Mary was only 11, and as a widow with children, Mary’s mother had little options in terms of income, and became severely depressed. With her mother unable to provide, Mary began to focus more intently on fossil-hunting and kept the family from having to leave their home.
Despite selling all of the fossils Mary could find, the Annings still lived in poverty until a professional fossil collector took action in 1817. He sold all of the fossils he had bought from Mary to museums and private collectors, and gave the money back to the Annings. This helped the Annings earn some more credibility, but the fossils they had found were not credited to them. As time passed, people lost track of the Anning fossils, but Mary continued to study and discover. In 1823, she discovered the first Plesiosaurus, which greatly impressed the scientific community. When she died of breast cancer in 1847, the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society published her obituary, even though had she lived, as a woman she wouldn’t have been admitted until 1904.
Mary Anning was well-known during her lifetime, however, because she was an unmarried woman with little means, she was seen as somewhat of an oddity and not a serious scientist. Most of the stories of her childhood are most likely myths, such as the one where as a baby, she survived being struck by a lightning bolt that killed the woman holding her. Once she became an adult, people weren’t as charmed by the idea of a female scientist as they had been with their image of little Mary hunting for bones. Museums and collectors weren’t careful to catalogue and credit her for her finds, so though we now know of many of her discoveries, it’s likely we will never fully understand the whole story of Mary Anning, the dinosaur hunter.