STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Today’s Woman in STEM mainly worked in the Science category.
The first woman in STEM we will learn about is Mary Anning: she is also known as the Mother of Paleontology. Most of the knowledge and skills she had was taught to her by her father or self-taught, so the work Mary did could be considered Citizen Science.
Mary was a white English woman born on May 12th, 1799 in Lyme Regis, England to Richard and Molly Anning. She had one sibling who survived birth, an older brother, Joseph (1,2). The Lyme Regis area is now well known for its variety of fossils dating back to the Jurassic period (1,2). Mary’s father, Richard, was a cabinet maker and amateur fossil collector. In fact, despite it being uncommon for women, the whole family was involved in the collection, cleaning and selling of fossils. The family lived in poverty and the sale of fossils helped them make ends meet (1).
Most women in Lyme Regis had little education. Despite this, Mary learned the initial skills to find, clean, and prepare fossils from her father, Richard. She also knew how to read and used this skill to self-teach herself geology and anatomy (2). The Anning family was still living in poverty when Richard died in 1810; Mary was only 11 years old. Joseph, Mary’s brother, started a career in upholstery to support the family, and through encouragement from her mother, Molly, Mary started selling her fossil finds to help support the family as well (1,2).
Around the time of Richard’s death, Joseph found a skull from an unknown fossil. He showed it to Mary and over the next several months a then 10-12 year old Mary unearthed the rest of the skeleton which ended up being a total of 17 feet (5.2 meters) long! Nothing like it had been found before. In perspective, this fossil was found around the same time that George Curvier first introduced the theory of extinction (2). This means that dinosaurs were not yet common knowledge, in fact the word dinosaur wasn’t even used until 1841! This was 30 years after this fossil discovery by Joseph and Mary (3).
After several years of study by the scientific community, this first big fossil discovery by Joseph and Mary was called Ichthyosaurus (which means “fish-lizard”). It was the first of its kind ever found. The Ichthyosaurus fossil dates back to 194-201 million years ago, placing it in the early Jurassic period (2). During the Jurassic period plants without flowers, like ferns, dominated plant life and dinosaurs dominated animal life. Birds and flowering plants made their first appearances. Mammals were also present but not yet common. Humans did not yet exist. Of course, none of these details were known yet when Joseph and Mary discovered the Ichthyosaurus.
Mary’s next big discovery, this time all on her own, happened about 11 years later in 1823 when Mary was 24 years old. This was the discovery of the first ever complete Plesiosaurus (meaning “near lizard”). Of course, since it was the first of its kind ever found, it didn’t yet have the name Plesiosaurus when Mary unearthed it. In fact, the fossil was so different from anything ever found before, that rumors started spreading suggesting it was fake. Even George Cuvier suggested it had to be fake and he scheduled a meeting with the Geological Society of London to dispute Mary’s discovery (1,2). Mary was not allowed to come to the meeting and defend her find because women were not allowed in the Geological Society until 1904 (2). During the meeting it was found that Mary’s fossil discovery of the Plesiosaurus was real and George Cuvier admitted his mistake. The Plesiosaurus became known as Mary’s greatest discovery (1,2). Plesiosaurus were marine dinosaurs that lived between 61.6-228 million years ago. This crosses the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods when dinosaurs ruled the Earth.
Despite the credit the Plesiosaurus find gave Mary within the scientific community, the scientific community did not give her credit for her finds. Many believed that her gender, age, lack of formal education, and social standing were not worthy of credit (1,2). Rather Mary unearthed, cleaned, identified, and sold fossils to white male scientists, then these scientists used the fossils to write scientific papers on “their” findings but failed to acknowledge Mary for her contribution (2). Even her fossils that went to museums did not credit her as the discoverer for the same reasons (1).
Dimorphodon and Beyond
Mary went on to make many other fossil discoveries including the first Pterosaur (winged-dinosaur) found outside of Germany: the Dimorphodon (2). The Dimorphodon lived from 176 – 200 million years ago, during the Jurassic period. Mary also is known to pioneer the study of coprolites, or the study of fossilized poop (2).
Despite Mary’s fossils constantly being in demand and sold, she and her family struggled financially her entire life, partly because of her lack of acceptance in the scientific community. Mary never married and died at a young age from breast cancer two months before her 48th birthday in March 1847 (2).
See the list of all the scientists in this Women in STEM series here
- “Mary Anning (1799-1847)” (On-line) University of California Museum of Paleontology Berkely. Accessed 2023 at https://ucmp.berkeley.edu/history/anning.html.
- Eylott, M.C. “Mary Anning: the unsung hero of fossil discovery” (On-line) Natural History Museum. Accessed 2023 at https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/mary-anning-unsung-hero.html.
- Markel, H. and Mayer, J. “The Origin Of The Word ‘Dinosaur’” (On-line) Science Friday. Accessed 2023 at https://www.sciencefriday.com/articles/the-origin-of-the-word-dinosaur/.
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