History time!: Mary Anning sells seashells
“She sells sea-shells by the sea-shore. The shells she sells are sea-shells, I’m sure. For if she sells sea-shells on the sea-shore, then I’m sure she sells sea-shore shells.” (Popular English-language tongue-twister said to have been inspired by Mary Anning’s work.)
Okay, so ladies. Ladies in motherfucking science. Yeah. (Did you know Beatrix Potter, of The Tales of Pantsless Rabbits fame, was way better at scientific illustration than doing children’s books? The Linnean Society were actually such jerks about her being a scientist while also being a lady that they issued a posthumous apology to her for being cocks.)
Mary Anning lived in Dorset in the 1800s, which just so happens to be the location of some ridiculously sweet fossil beds. She spent a lot of her time collecting them. Like, she found the first ichthyosaur to be correctly identified (people back then had some weird fucking ideas* about what these things were, I tell you what) when she was twelve fucking years old. She was so into this shit that she was risking life and limb to collect fossils during ye olde winter landslide season, where chunks of cliff-face would just fall the fuck off and expose new layers of fossils for like five minutes before that shit would be swept out to sea.
Also? Dorset’s in the UK, so we can safely assert that it is fucking cold in the winter. Like, Mary Anning spent the winter slogging around the fucking seaside, dodging falling dinosaur bones and hypothermia in pursuit of science. In 1833, at the age of 34, she almost bought it in a landslide that actually did kill her dog (pictured above), which is very sad but please do keep in mind that the dog died doing what he loved: chasing bones bigger than his face and older than the empire.
She’s credited with the first two plesiosaur skeletons ever found, full stop, and the first pterosaur found outside Germany, where they thought the wings were flippers and that they were dealing with an aquatic dinosaur, because weird fucking ideas**.
Pictured above: A clearly sea-going animal that just so happens to look like a giant, nightmarish bat.
She was a key player in the identification of coprolites (Latin for ‘shit-rocks’) as shit-rocks, which is the sort of thing that’s important scientifically but okay maybe a little embarrassing to have listed prominently on your Official World Contributions record. For added hilarity, imagine everybody trying to be proper English folk in mixed company in the 1820s while discussing the fact that the fossils in question were generally found in the abdominal cavity and, when cracked open, tended to contain what was likely the dinosaur’s dinner, and therefore might just possibly be a crap fossil.
Or, I don’t know, scientists of any age tend to be crazy as shithouse rats anyway, maybe they just shut the doors and started yelling “Fossilized dinosaur shit!” at the top of their lungs while doing a little jig because holy hell man, now they know what these bastards ate (fish, other dinosaurs). I mean, I assume they all did a chest-bump and had a little bro-down while yelling “Yeah, motherfuckers!” when she discovered that belemnites had ink sacs just like modern cuttlefish and squid because I don’t even know what to tell you if you don’t find that fucking exciting.
Pictured above: A deeply fucking exciting thing.
Above: A belemnite drawn with its own fucking ink because science is better than you.
This thing (Duria Antiquior, by silverback geologist and Anning’s childhood friend Henry De la Beche), which you may have seen in history books or museums, was painted based so much on Anning’s finds that she was the beneficiary of print sales. Which she kind of fucking needed, because whereas even today palaeontologists are not exactly making rockstar bank, back in the day as a lady and a religious dissenter (like, they actually fucking called themselves the Dissenters, which just seems like a bad move) and a fucking orphan who lived in a house that regularly got Katrina’d, she was basically a non-villian in a Dickens novel***. I mean, there’s “broke,” and then there’s “I’m stuck selling rocks to tourists when I should be lecturing on these fucking things to packed audiences in London, stop leaving my name off papers, you dicks.”
Like, she was really well-known, and she got consulted a lot, but she what she was left trying to make a living off of was still fossils she’d risked her neck to get and was now dealing out of a road-side stand. In an area that had seen actual fucking bread riots not long beforehand. And as anyone who’s ever dealt with tourists can understand, it’s probably a miracle she’s not on record as stabbing anybody in the face with a belemnite.
“These are ancient squid and cuttlefish, aren’t they awesome? Look at the well-preserve….You’re not listening, are you?” “The table down the road said they were devil’s fingers.” “Okay, yes, sure, they’re the spoooooooky stone fingers of actual demons. Note the ink sac of myyyyyyyystical origins. If you rub it twice on your forehead before sleeping, its arcane power will cure you of dropsy, gout, the pox, the clap, the ague, the flux, and the galloping danders. Please consult your doctor if symptoms persist for more than two weeks. Now buy it or get out.”
Eventually she did get enough money together to move into a proper shop, but like, this lady sold fossils to fucking royalty. Like, a literal king walked in and bought a dinosaur off the fucking wall for his own personal museum. Kings generally do not buy stuff from tables on sidewalks. She still had to deal with tourists, but her name was getting out there more.
Above: From the personal correspondence of Mary Anning, a fucking plesiosaurus.
In addition to guiding and helping established researchers on fossiling trips, she also occasionally trained their wives independently. At the time, scientists’ wives were frequently either unpublished scientists themselves or were expected to act as assistants, illustrators, and/or secretaries, so this was looked on as a major solid. She took on and worked with several interested women, and she was science-bros with fellow lady-palaeontologist Elizabeth Philpot. (Philpot, an artist, was actually the one who discovered that it was possible to turn the fossil belemnite ink up there back into a useable pigment.)
Eventually Anning’s bad-assery in the name of science was too much for everyone to ignore, and she was awarded a government pension for her radical contributions to geology. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1846, the Geological Society of London (which still didn’t permit women as members or even as guests) raised money for her medical care and then commissioned a stained glass window in her memory once she died in 1847 (there was like fuck-all you could do for breast cancer in those days).
Sadly, the stained glass window deferred to 1850s tastes and did not involve Anning doing donuts in a carriage with hot-rod flames on the sides under a banner reading “Fuck Yeah, Dinosaurs.” Henry De la Beche, her bro from back when and also its president, published a eulogy in the Geological Society transactions, an honor previously reserved for members. Unlike Potter, she never did get an official posthumous apology or membership induction, but I guess it’s times like this to remember that it’s never too late to go back and erect a mausoleum made of like a plesiosaur ribcage with an animatronic pterodactyl on top.
*Largely due to reading the Old Testament a few too many times.
**Ideas not helped by a vague awareness of the existence of crocodiles and alligators, but no real clear picture on their actual anatomy. See also: 9 out of 10 medieval paintings involving exotic animals.
***No, really. To the point that Dickens really did fucking write about her, possibly while going “Jesus Christ, it’s like I accidentally wrote somebody into a horrible consciousness-raising political screed of a life.”