As a college librarian, I often hear stressed-out students searching for primary sources say, "I'll take anything." Don't settle for just anything. There is a treasury of primary source material available electronically. Peruse my selection of 200-plus primary source sites by conducting a keyword search, exploring the tag cloud at left, or browsing by historical era. You can also visit my Delicious and Diigo sites to review my bookmarks. Here's hoping you find what you're looking for.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Remarkable Creatures, Pioneering Scientists

 I recently finished reading Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier and was sorry when I reached the final page. Set in Dorset, the book tells the story of 19th century fossil hunters Elizabeth Philpot and Mary Anning and describes the impact their finds had on the scientific community’s study of paleontology and the question of creationism.

It wasn’t until I finished the book that I learned this work of historical fiction was based on real individuals. Back in the 1800s, Misses Anning and Philpot combed the dangerous, fossil-laden cliffs near Lyme Regis seeking specimens. They made an
odd pair. Miss Philpot took to fossil hunting as a diversion after moving to the coast from London. Miss Anning gathered fossils as a means to help support her destitute family. They were hugely successful in their quest. Mary Anning was credited with the discovery of the first plesiosaur and was responsible for finding a number of ichthyosaurs. Much of the novel is devoted to the struggle the women had in gaining respect for their knowledge and expertise. In fact, Mary Anning did become a well-known fossil hunter and paleontologist who was consulted by and corresponded with some of the most renowned scientists of the day.

Given my interest in primary sources, I imagined there must be a wealth of material available about Mary Anning and her work. JSTOR’s Early Journal Content provides access to an article written by noted British anatomist and paleontologist Sir Richard Owen that appeared in the in the 1844 edition of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London.

In it, Owen writes:
One of the specimens discovered by Miss MARY ANNING of Lyme…has been presented, since the reading of the present memoir, by the Earl of Enniskillen to the College of Surgeons.
Mary Anning died of breast cancer in 1847. But prior to her passing, her contributions to the field of paleontology were acknowledged and she was presented with a small annuity from the Geological Society in recognition of her work. You can read the decision to grant that financial support in an 1848 edition of the Quarterly Report of the Geological Society of London. That work is available from Google Books.

The photo above of Mary Anning comes from the Natural History Museum in London.

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