In this breezy biography, Shelley Emling uncovers the life of fossil hunter and tongue-twister muse Mary Anning, who, in selling "seashells by the seashore," discovered the first complete skeleton of an ichthyosaur.
Born into poverty in 1799, Anning, at age 12, unearthed the prehistoric sea-dweller while looking for ammonites, or "snakestones," to hawk to tourists. The find was only the first of many. Over the ensuing decades, her beach-combing forays turned up the unusual and never-before-seen plesiosaur, as well as a pterodactyl, both of which attracted the attention of scientists across Europe, including Darwin, and helped cast into doubt the veracity of the Bible's creation story. By the time she was an old maid, Anning was something of a "geological Lioness," and yet many of her discoveries were credited to her male contemporaries, which Emling surmises caused Anning to feel "exceedingly resentful." Thankfully, Anning eventually received some scientific acknowledgment and even had two species of fish named after her, but since her death from breast cancer in 1847, Anning's contributions to paleontology have largely been buried by history. Ironically, excavating the full details of Anning's life seems to have been difficult, and Emling, a journalist, pads her biography with speculation and poetic liberties that melodramatically re-create Mary breathing a "sigh of relief" and such. Distracting fictionalizations aside, the unlikely life story of uneducated, lower-class girl turned respected 19th-century paleontologist Mary Anning is, in Emling's hands, an inspiring one.