Have you ever heard the proverbial saying, “every cloud has a silver lining”? Well, this was certainly the case for the accidental paleontologist, Mary Anning.
Mary Anning was born May 21,1799 to a working-class family living on the southern coast of England. Life was tough for the Annings. Short of food and creature comforts, they also suffered through frequent storms so severe they sometimes had to climb out the second-floor windows of their home to escape flooding.
The Annings weren’t the only things displaced by the angry sea. Over the centuries, rain and wind had washed away layers of earth on the cliffs near their home, exposing petrified bones as well as animal skeletons imprinted in stone. At just 12 years old, Mary found a four-foot skull. Within months, she’d uncovered the entire creature. It turned out to be the fossilized remains of an Ichthyosaur and when a London collector bought it for 23 pounds (more than $2K today!), she was hooked.
Mary even prospected for fossils in winter, when storms raged. It was dangerous work. She narrowly missed being crushed by landslides many times. (Sadly, her trusty terrier Tray was not so lucky.) She found fossils of ammonite and belemnite, which she sold to summer tourists, possibly inspiring the tongue twister, “She sells sea shells by the sea shore.”
But it was Mary’s keen eye for the unique and remarkable that caused her reputation to grow. She constructed the first complete Plesiosaurus as well as a flying reptile called Pterosaur. Despite her limited education, she kept up with all the scientific journals and often wrote to them, challenging findings she did not agree with. Famous archaeologists and paleontologists from Britain and Europe flocked to her Dorset doorstep. But being a woman and working class, Mary never gained acceptance within the all-male, upper-class scientific circles of her day.
Though she did not receive the recognition due her in life, Mary Anning is regarded today as one of the most influential women in the history of science. Her contributions to the field of paleontology remain unsurpassed.
It is said that every cloud brings a silver lining. And, indeed, the wind and rain brought fortune and fame to this accidental female scientist and fossil hunter of the Victorian era.
This YouTube will share some of the interesting information Mary Anning was able to learn by the study of dinosaur poop!
Sarah Towle is an award-winning digital storyteller of immersive tales for educational tourism. With her latest project for secondary school students—the History Hero BLAST—she puts the Story back in History, bringing a fictional flair to factual tales of inspirational figures from around the world and throughout time. A blog and future podcast, the HHBLAST welcomes the participation of published and aspiring authors, including young writers. Click here to find out more about how to bring the HHBLAST—and Sarah—to your school!
It was December 24, 1801, when bundled-up Philadelphians bought their 25¢ tickets and entered Peale’s Museum on Fifth Street. Once inside, they saw the owner’s paintings. And I’ll bet you have too—even if you’ve never heard of Charles Willson Peale. This one, for instance, of his fellow Revolutionary War soldier:
Visitors to the museum had seen Peale’s collections of butterflies, too, and other nature specimens, such as the fossilized teeth of mysterious beasts. (Who knew then that animals went extinct? Hardly anybody!) But on this extra-special Christmas Eve, people probably hurried past Peale’s handmade dioramas, with the lifelike bodies of birds and mammals that he’d stuffed and posed. Today, Mr. C.W. Peale himself was introducing his NEW ATTRACTION. People had paid an extra 50¢ just to see it! Now they looked up, up, UP at it, and were astonished.
What animal’s skeleton was eleven feet tall? Seventeen and a half feet from its bony tail to the tips of its giant, curving tusks? It was a mastodon.
No one had seen a live mastodon in more than ten thousand years. So how did one’s bones get to Philadelphia? Mr. Peale and other naturalists such as Thomas Jefferson, the new President-elect, wrote to one another about their studies, collections, and the latest discoveries, such as like these huge, mysterious bones in southern New York state. Some of North America’s long-gone mastodons ended up there, by the Hudson River. As soon as he heard about them, Peale hurried to see them. Then he not only figured a way to dig up the bones, but he also painted a picture of the huge excavation!
Peale’s son, Rembrandt helped to draw and assemble the bones:
For years, people paid to marvel at the enormous, sensational skeleton. Later on, after Mr. Peale’s death in 1827, his museum slowly went broke. P.T. Barnum, the circus showman, bought a lot of his exhibits. Later still, they were destroyed in a fire. And the mighty bones of the mastodon wound up lost for a hundred years, until the skeleton turned up in Germany, where you can see it today.
In Thomas Jefferson, her sixth presidential biography for National Geographic, Cheryl Harness illuminates the many sides of Thomas Jefferson: scientist, lawyer, farmer, architect, diplomat, inventor, musician, philosopher, author of the Declaration of Independence, founder of the University of Virginia, and third president of the United States. Readers meet this extraordinary man of contradictions: a genius who proclaimed that "All men are created equal" and championed the rights of "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness," while at the same time living a life that depended on the enforced labor of slaves.
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "The Big Deal in Mr. Peale's Museum." Nonfiction Minute, iNK
Think Tank, 18 Apr. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
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