I’m sure there are many marvellous people called Mary, but the one I’m thinking about is Mary Anning. I first ‘met’ Mary many years ago when I first began teaching; the school I was at had an integrated humanities course, matching English, history and geography syllabus. It started with the creation of the earth – the scientific theory, looking at the formation of rocks and geology, and the first creatures which lived on this planet. For the eleven-year-olds I was teaching, the best bit was when we reached the dinosaurs; to accompany the geology we read a book called ‘Mary Anning’s Treasures’ by Helen Bush which I think is out of print now. This told the true story of a poor young girl, the same age as my students who helped the family income by finding fossils along the Dorset coast near Lyme Regis with her father who was also a carpenter and cabinet-maker. What they found they sold to tourists.
It was a great story but I don’t remember where it ended, with Mary still as a girl, or Mary as an adult and a respected fossil hunter? I often thought of Mary Anning over the years when any mention was made on the news of a new and exciting find, and also when we visited Lyme Regis. Mary was born in 1799 into a poor family, but she rose to become famous across Europe and North America. She had a remarkable career and became respected for her ability to find and recognise and excavate (with the help of labourers) many huge fossilised remains of dinosaurs, including the first ever ichthyosaur and two complete plesiosaurs and many, many more over her long career. She had a long career but a short life, dying at the age of forty-seven. She was just a very ordinary poor ill-educated girl with no advantages in life but became highly respected in the world of science – even though she never made her fortune.
You may not be able to read Helen Bush’s book, but you can read Tracy Chevalier’s excellent novel ‘Remarkable Creatures’, which I’ve just read for one of my book clubs. This is the story of Mary Anning told by her and also by the character of Elizabeth Philpot a gentile lady who shared an interest in fossils. It is a story which doesn’t just cover the finding and collecting of specimens, but the position of women in society, the class system, religious beliefs and prejudice, and the relationship of the two women who were so far apart through age and class and education and yet became friends. If you haven’t yet read it I do recommend it, even if you aren’t interested in fossils! Without exception everyone in the book club enjoyed it – and that’s really saying something!