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Women in Palaeontology

Updated: Aug 2, 2022

Happy international women's day!


Whilst today is a day for celebrating the empowerment, respect and influence women have gained in all facets of our world, this is, after all, a blog dedicated to natural history, so I will concentrate most on the women within this particular science (that and I don't have the time and memory space it would take to name everyone!).


So, for this post for international women's day, we'll be taking a quick overview on some of the most influencial women in natural history. Here we go!


So, you saw this one coming surely, first up is none other than Mary Anning herself!





Mary Anning's informal title is well earned and justified: the mother of palaeontology. Mary Anning was an absolute pioneer in the world of palaeontology of her time. If you've ever heard the the old rhyme of 'she sells sea shells by the sea shore', you can thank her for that! Yes she made most of her living by selling marine fossils before succumbing to breast cancer at the young age of 47, but her biggest contributions were tragically cast aside until her death. If you've ever been to the natural history museum of London, you would have surely come across the marine exhibit:



London NHM marine exhibit. Image credit: https://allosaurusroar.com/natural-history-museum-london-england/


Well, Mary Anning is responsible for most of that exhibit! Not only did she fill those halls with wonderful fossils, she also also contributed to a great deal of marine natural history that we know today. She had even named the first coprolite (fossilised poo)! In fact, she most likely educated the men of the time on the marine fauna that inhabited the Mesozoic, without anything but posthumous credit.


Next we have Annie Montague Alexander. Here's one for the American readers. Born in 1867, Annie Alexander was a philanthropist, explorer, naturalist and paleontological collector. Not only known for being handy with a gun, she also explored the vastness of North America and Africa. After accumulating a vast number of findings, she she then founded the University of California Museum of Paleontology as well as the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.



Annie Montague Alexander. Image credit: https://cal170.library.ca.gov/annie-alexander-fossil-hunter/


Annie Montague Alexander. Image credit: https://cal170.library.ca.gov/annie-alexander-fossil-hunter/


Then we have Mary Buckland. If the name Buckland rings any bells, it's probably because her husband, William Buckland, was the palaeontologist behind the naming of the first dinosaur, Megalosaurus. However, not only was she all bags in for a honeymoon consisting of a year long geological field trip, she was also the brains behind many of William's ideas! Not only that, she was an extremely skilled illustrator, creating paleontological drawings for the likes of George Cuvier, William Buckland and William Conybeare. She was an intrepid fossil collector and even continued her own research after her husband's death.



Mary Buckland. Image credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mary_Morland_Buckland,_from_an_original_photograph.jpg


Speaking of illustrators, many people may not have heard of Sarah Hall. Sarah was another important contributor to science through her incredible illustrations but, yet again, could only outlet it through her geologist husband James Hall. Little is actually known about her other than this (no pictures of her even exist!) and, unfortunately, credit for her work were once again given posthumously.



Some of Sarah's illustrations. Image credit: https://www.museumoftheearth.org/daring-to-dig/bio/hall


Lastly, we have the Lister sisters. Anne and Susanna Lister began work on palaeontology when they were just teenagers, illustrating and engraving works for their father, British naturalist and physician Martin Lister. Martin taught his girls everything he knew, taking them on excavations and guiding them into the world of paleontology. Thankfully, they were given full credit for their contributions and hard work at the time of all of its publishing.




A couple of illustrations by the Lister sisters.


Now, I would be remiss not to state the obvious here: There are nearly infinite influential women in the science of paleontology from its very inception centuries ago. Incredible discoveries have been found and studied by women, giving the most invaluable insight into the natural world and we would be centuries behind where we are now without them. This momentum has only sped up in modern times too! Thankfully, geology as a whole is one of the few sciences (from what I have seen) that is not male dominated and I have had the honour of meeting so many incredible and influential women at different stages of their career in the field, from fellow colleagues just starting out, to trail blazing researchers and lecturers with decades under their belt who have taught me.


So it goes without saying I haven't even scratched the surface here. Partly because readers of this blog would spend days reading this one post, but also because I think everyone should celebrate this day by going out there and exploring the vastness for themselves! So, here's to all the women who have pushed this exciting science so far and who continue to do so!


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