In the early days of my tertiary studies, I studied Darwin’s theory of evolution. In the process, I learned a bit about his grandfather – Erasmus Darwin. He was a natural historian and once wrote one poem that filled a whole book. This poetry was full of observations about the lives of plants. It didn’t pose any questions. His grandson went on those explorations after observing that different birds had different beaks. I suppose he also asked, “ Why is it so”?
He suggested that birds developed different beaks so that they could consume different foods. The theory of adaptation. In my paper, I proposed there could be another option – the kind of beaks they had determined the kind of food they could choose to eat!
Anyway, his particular theory of evolution was born and developed. But in the background was a young female by the name of Mary Anning. Unlike the wealthy Darwin clan, Mary was too poor to attend school, Mary taught herself to read, write and draw. She took up fossil hunting to support her fatherless family. Selling her ‘finds’ along the coast to locals and visitors. At 12-years-old, she made her first major discovery on England’s Dorset coastline (now known as the Jurassic coast): she revealed a complete ichthyosaurus. Around 1810.
Through her work with fossils, Mary increasingly became an expert in the field of palaeontology – the study of fossil animals and plants. Before long, she was an important consultant on prehistoric life and an esteemed member of the science community. However, Mary was prohibited from joining professional societies like the National Geographic because of rules banning female members at the time.
During her short lifetime, Mary revolutionised her field. Her work influenced the theories of Charles Darwin, who referred to her in his writings as the carpenter’s daughter, who deservedly ‘won a name for herself’.
She overcame great challenges during her life to become one of history’s foremost palaeontology experts and she is remembered for transforming the way we understand evolution and prehistoric life. Like so many female scientists she triumphed over adversity. The tongue-twister ‘She sells sea shells on the sea shore’ is recognised as a reference to young Mary selling fossils along the Dorset coast.