Mary Anning and the Power of History

L0022370 Autograph letter concerning the discovery
Autographed letter concerning discovery, Wellcome Library

DailyDose_darkstrokePALEONTOLOGY is not, strictly speaking, “medical humanities.” This scientific study of prehistoric life looks at (and for) fossils in order to determine the life and environment of creatures long gone. At the same time, however, like all historical disciplines, it requires careful consideration and not a little creative thinking to reconstruct a coherent narrative of the past. Paleontology  also reminds me, in some ways, of forensics as well–the medical discipline that merged with criminology to solve murders based upon remains and material artifacts. Today, therefore, we salute the medical-humanities bent of paleontology to celebrate one of its greats: Mary Anning.

Honored yesterday on the anniversary of her birth, Mary Anning was born in Britain in 1799. She became a world-renowned fossil hunter and palaeontologist by the early and mid-19th century–an unrivaled achievement in a period known for the disparagement of women in the sciences. Her finds came mostly from the Jurassic marine fossil beds in Dorset, a county in Southwest England. In addition to finding an ichthyosaur skeleton, Anning it credited with discovering the first two plesiosaurs (and happily spawning generations of Nessie-watchers).[1] Of interest to medical history, Anning re-identified the “bezoar” stone (coprolites) as fossilized dino dung. An actual bezoar is undigested foreign material that “accumulate and coalesce within the gastrointestinal tract,” usually the stomach.[2] Far from being magical or having restorative powers, these stones were nonetheless fascinating finds that revealed something about the way prehistoric beats lived. Possibly my favorite of Anning’s finds, however, might be the fossil ink-sacs. These preserved sacs, called belemnites, came from ancient squids–and Anning had the ink restored for use in her illustrations (like the one above). [3]

Though her life was short, Anning deeply influenced the study of prehistoric creatures, and paleontology owes a debt to her determination and creativity. May we never forget.


[1] Mary Anning. University of California Museum of Paleontology.

[2] Michael K. Sanders “Bezoars: From Mystical Charms to Medical and Nutritional Management.” NUTRITION ISSUES IN GASTROENTEROLOGY, SERIES #13


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