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Kate Winslet (left) will play fossil hunter Mary Anning (right) in 'Ammonite'. (GC Images; Wikimedia)
Kate Winslet (left) will play fossil hunter Mary Anning (right) in 'Ammonite'. (GC Images; Wikimedia)

Women in science

Kate Winslet to play one of history’s greatest fossil hunters — derided in her time as a fraud

By WITW Staff on May 10, 2019

Nearly 200 years after her death, fossil finder Mary Anning is finally getting the credit she deserves for her revolutionary work pioneering the field of paleontology — and a feature film to boot.

While the name of the legendary fossil hunter is relatively unknown, scholars say that Anning was emphatically denied credit from the scientific community for the “momentous discoveries” she made during her life — including by the so-called “founding father of paleontology,” Georges Cuvier. Despite that, many people today have heard of Anning — at least indirectly. Her life is widely believed to be the inspiration for the popular tongue twister “She sells seashells by the sea shore.” Only Anning wasn’t actually selling sea shells, but ammonites, belemnites, ichthyosaurs and other fossils she found on her walks along the World Heritage-listed Jurassic Coast of Lyme Regis, a small town in West Dorset in England.

Anning, whose father died of tuberculosis in 1810 when she was just 11 years old, made a living for her working class family by finding and selling fossils as souvenirs to tourists — or when she found something “particularly spectacular,” to museums. In 1812, Anning successfully excavated the full skeleton of an almost 5-meter long ichthyosaur, an ancient crocodile-like marine reptile that went extinct 90 million years ago. It was the first complete ichthyosaurus skeleton to ever be seen by the London scientific community, according to Dr. Adrian Currie, a professor of anthropology at the University of Exeter. In 1823, she discovered the skeleton of a plesiosaur, a massive Mesozoic-era marine reptile whose likely appearance serves as the inspiration for depictions of the Loch Ness monster.

But while her work was widely known to the scientific community at the time, as a woman Anning wasn’t allowed to become a member of the Geological Society — or even to the enter the building. And Cuvier, incredulous that a working class woman could be capable of such discoveries, inspected the skeletons and declared them both fakes.

“Originally he thought that this must have been some kind of hoax … but he did admit later on that he was wrong,” said Currie.

Today, Anning is considered by many scholars as “the greatest fossilist the world has known,” according to the British Society for the History of Science. An upcoming biopic about her life, Ammonite, starring Kate Winslet, is set to begin principal photography in March.

Read the full story at ABC News.


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