Tongue Twisters: She Sells Sea Shells…

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Mary Anning
Mary Anning

She sells seashells on the seashore

The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure

So if she sells seashells on the seashore

Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.

Just about every English speaker over the age of 5 knows at least the first line of Terry Sullivan’s 1908 tongue twister. Much less known, sadly, is the woman behind the rhyme.

Meet Mary Anning: fossil collector and dealer and amateur palaeontologist who became known (posthumously, for the most part) for her spectacular finds of Jurassic marine life along the Dorset coast, England, during the 1st half of the 19th century. Her work would contribute to fundamental changes in the scientific understanding of the history of life on earth, and eventually give rise to an entirely new systematic approach to this discipline, the science of paleontology.

Mary began collecting shells and fossils when she was a small child: her father would take the young Mary and her brother out on fossil-hunting expeditions, setting up their finds on a table outside their home to sell to tourists. The results of these often hazardous cliff-side forays were nothing short of astonishing. Over the course of her career, she discovered the first ever ichthyosaur (a huge fish-like marine reptile) and plesiosaur (long-necked marine reptile) skeletons every found, the first pterosaurs (flying reptiles) discovered outside of Germany, and numerous other reptile, fish and invertebrate fossils.

Although she became well known in geological circles on both sides of the Atlantic and was often consulted on issues of anatomy and fossil collecting, Mary was denied the formal recognition of the 19th-century British scientific community, largely because of her gender and social class. She lived out her life in relative poverty and obscurity on the Dorset coast, with only one scientific paper published during her lifetime. It wasn’t until 2010, that Mary Anning finally got her due, when the Royal Society included her in the top 10 British women who have most influenced the history of science.