On Anne Caldwell, ‘Palaeontology’
The poem that I was asked to read, by the wonderful Anne Caldwell, is about fossils. It is called ‘Palaeontology’, and it starts with a quote from a letter written by the pioneering British palaeontologist Mary Anning.
Since we’re here to ‘celebrate the amazing’, I thought I would tell you a little bit about this truly amazing woman and her remarkable life, which mirrors the lives and work of many women scientists who came before and after her.
Mary Anning was born in 1799 and lived in an English seaside town in Dorset. Her family was extremely poor, which meant she didn’t get to attend school very much, and mostly taught herself to write and read. Mary spent a lot of her time, as a child, with her father, searching the coast, looking for what she called ‘curiosities’. Late in her life, as she developed a better understanding of her finds, she realized that they were actually fossils.
Over the course of her life she made many incredible discoveries which made her famous among some of the most important scientists of the day. In spite of that recognition, the majority of Mary’s fossils ended up in museums and private collections without any credit being given to her. As time passed, Mary Anning was forgotten by the scientific community and by most historians, due to the lack of appropriate documentation of her achievements. Contributing to the oversight of her contribution to palaeontology was her social status and her gender. Many scientists of the day simply could not believe that a young woman from such a deprived background could possess the knowledge and skills that she seemed to display.
Mary was only 47 when she died of breast cancer. Today she is remembered as one of the greatest palaeontologists who have ever lived. Her findings have contributed to some of the most important changes to scientific thinking about the prehistoric age and the history of the Earth. Perhaps less known is the fact that the lovely rhyme, ‘She sells the shells by the sea shore’, is actually inspired by her life.
Sources consulted re Mary Anning’s life
Eylott, Marie-Claire (2018) ‘Mary Anning: the unsung hero of fossil discovery’, Natural History Museum Collections, https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/mary-anning-unsung-hero.html
BBC Bitesize, ‘Mary Anning: Fossil Hunter’, https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/topics/zd8fv9q/articles/zf6vb82
‘The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me
suspicious of everyone.’
— Mary Anning, fossil hunter, in Dickens, 1865.
This morning, your neighbour talks
of a landslip down on the sea-cliffs.
This is the longest you’d heard her speak.
She rolls the words around
her mouth like new potatoes,
is looming out of the mud, tusks first.
A jumble of vertebrae and thigh-bones,
tibia and fibula.
You picture this creature, buried
in sand-strata, waiting four million years
to feel the sea-breeze again, sense that fling
of sand-pipers returning from the African coast.
You remember Mary Anning and her dog,
striding across her beloved, Jurassic beaches,
her parlour, a forgotten treasure-trove
crammed with belemnites and cephalopods.