Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Mary Anning

Have you seen today's Google Doodle? It's a birthday tribute to Mary Anning who would be 215 if she was still alive. And who is/was Mary Anning, do I hear you ask? I'd have asked the same if I hadn't recently seen a documentary about her and her discoveries.

Well, she was an extraordinary woman by any standard. Born in Lyme Regis in 1799, she was one of the two surviving children of Richard and Mary Anning. Her father was a cabinet maker and fossil hunter and the Jurassic marine fossil beds in the cliffs around Lyme Regis were - and still are - a rich source. At the time, although palaeontology was still in its infancy, there was great interest in fossils and gentleman fossil collectors were willing to pay for interesting pieces and finding fossils and selling them  was how the family supported themselves after Richard Anning died when Mary was eleven.

Mary had a great eye for picking out unusual fossils and many of her discoveries led to a new understanding of the past but, living as she did in a time when women generally were not highly regarded in scientific circles - they couldn't go to university and, even with all her groundbreaking discoveries, Mary Anning was not eligible to join the Geological Society of London nor did she receive full credit for many of her discoveries because she was a woman, her ability and work was not recognised by much of the scientific community. Not everyone ignored her though and she did have supporters who credited her and gave financial support to her and her family but life was often difficult for her. You can read about her life here.

The thing that most strikes me about this story is that this is a woman who has been of enormous importance to our understanding of a particular area of science and yet, although she did have some people who acknowledged her work, was excluded from formal recognition by the scientific establishment because she was a woman. How ridiculous.

The truly sad thing is that this hasn't changed in many parts of the world even now. Not that we can be too judgemental. Even as recently as the early 1960s - that's only fifty years ago - societal pressures meant that most women left school at the age of 14 or 15. Of those who continued their education, many left school and went into short secretarial courses - basically typing, shorthand and elementary book keeping so they could work in an office, while of those who completed Year 12 only a small percentage matriculated and went to university. This didn't mean there weren't young women who were capable of tertiary education. There certainly were but the attitude of many people was that spending money on educating a girl to a higher level was a waste. After all, she was only going to get married and stop working, wasn't she.

Thank goodness, our society has changed and there have been advances - not enough unfortunately or we wouldn't still be having to have conversations about gender equality but some. With luck these changes will continue and the next Mary Anning's work will be recognised and she will be feted and rewarded for it. With luck.


QPT said...

Mary Anning is a role model for all the girls.

Helen V. said...

She is certainly one of my heroes.