Pioneering Fossil Hunter Mary Anning Gets Her Dues

Mary Anning’s fossil findings helped lay the groundwork for Darwin’s theory of evolution. Today, women in science who were once lost to history are being rediscovered and celebrated for their contributions. Is Mary Anning finally getting the credit she deserves?

March was Women’s History Month, a chance for women’s accomplishments to be acknowledged and celebrated, and the Read More Science Book Club read Shelley Emling’s book The Fossil Hunter to learn about a woman whose work changed science. This review is being posted late, but was meant to acknowledge that month. Centuries after her death, Mary Anning and her incredible contributions are finally getting the attention they deserve. A new biopic of Anning’s life, Ammonite, starring Kate Winslet, is currently in the making.

Author Shelley Emling has conducted some serious research into her subject’s life. The way she weaves fact into storytelling — and her cautious approach to retelling Anning’s story based on what Emling believe may have happened – makes for a trustworthy read. Emling is clearly passionate about making sure readers understand just how much of an impact Anning’s work has made on our understanding of dinosaurs and evolution. For a woman with no education, at a time when women were expected to be wives and mothers, Anning abandoned all that to earn money for her family and make a name for herself as a fossil hunter.

Emling does a great job of guiding readers through Anning’s life story. The book is vivid and even includes a few illustrations and photographs that bring the characters and setting to life for the reader. The book feels exactly the right length. In fact, the only strange component that may turn some readers off (it took some adjusting for me to get used to) is that Emling writes without assuming. The language she uses is “Mary may have done this” or “this may have happened,” careful to never state something happened when Emling could not be sure. Although this is technically correct – it’s not as if Emling witnessed the events she is retelling – it gives the book a strange suspension. It’s difficult to connect to the story when you feel detached from the events, unsure whether or not to believe they happened at all. I wish Emling had written her book with greater confidence or asked readers to suspend their disbelief through assertion.

I feel as though male popular science writers are more willing to tell the story the way they believed it happened, and some female writers are careful to be cautious. However, I have never read a book written in the style Emling employs in The Fossil Hunter. If you don’t enjoy the first chapter, it’s not likely to get better for you. But I think if you can get past the style, it’s worth giving the book a chance because it is an important and wonderful story and Emling delivers it well. Just be prepared for all the “Mary may have…” and “Mary likely thought or felt…” and “Mary might have then…”, because it may take some getting used to.

Overall, The Fossil Hunter is a good book to breeze through this summer if you want to learn more about the accomplishments of an incredible woman who was barred from participating in the scientific world at the time.

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