Mary Anning and the men of science

This year sees the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society, the UK’s “premier league” of scientists.  There has been much going on to celebrate this in London but some attempt has been made to take the celebrations out of the capital.  This has included a programme of regional events around the country called “Local Heroes”, celebrating important figures in science in places they lived or worked.  In Dorset, the Philpot Museum in Lyme Regis has extended its permanent Mary Anning exhibition with displays on “Mary Anning and the men of science”.  Mary Anning, who lived in Lyme Regis, was probably the greatest fossil hunter ever known and her finds influenced 19th century theories about geology and evolution.  She interacted with many of the well known geologists of the day although these men mostly took her fossils and failed to credit her.  Visit http://www.lablit.com/article/625 for some background on Mary Anning.

They obviously don’t spend much money on heating at the Philpot museum and when I visited it last Saturday afternoon it was bitterly cold.  Despite this, it was interesting to see the new exhibits.  I particularly liked the brightly coloured models of creatures from ancient Dorset, generated by Dorset artist Darrel Wakelam together with local school children.  This is a re-creation of the watercolour “Duria Antiquior” painted by Henry de la Beche in 1830 where he literally put flesh on the bones of the creatures discovered as fossils by Mary Anning.

 

Duria Antiquior (A more ancient Dorset) (Henry de la Beche, 1830)

Duria Antiquior (A more ancient Dorset) (Darrel Wakelam and school children, 2011, from Philpot museum website)

De la Beche is one of three “men of science” featured in the exhibition along with William Buckland and William Conybeare.   These men were leading geologists of the time and made important advances in this new field.  They visited Mary Anning in Lyme Regis on many occasions and developed friendships with her.  Despite this they failed to credit her with finding fossils they subsequently used in their work and which ended up in museums.  I didn’t think the exhibition brought out this tension between the educated male geologists and the poorly educated but very knowledgeable female fossil expert.

Nevertheless, earlier this year, Mary Anning was named number three in a list of the “most influential British women in the history of science” compiled by the Royal Society (http://royalsociety.org/Most-influential-British-women-in-the-history-of-science/).  After 150 years she is finally getting the credit she deserves.

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