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Berta M. Moritz
 on July 10, 2019

Pioneering Women of Paleontology

The profiles of three women of faith who made important early contributions to the science of paleontology, despite their own lack of formal training or public recognition.

fish fossils

Women are still minorities in the sciences, and we should change that in the 21st century.  Although there is no “magic bullet” to close the gender gap in science, everyone who studies the problem agrees on one thing—the importance of female role models in changing girls’ perceptions of themselves. As a female scientist, I have to agree. But at the same time, I am a Christian female scientist, and young girls need to know that it’s possible to be both.1

In that light, let’s examine the lives of three women of faith who made important contributions to the science of paleontology, despite their own lack of formal training or public recognition. What connects them all, besides their love for Jesus and interest in fossils, is the sleepy coastal town of Lyme Regis.

Mary Anning

The early 19th century was an exciting time to be a scientist. The new fields of geology and paleontology were booming. Evidence accumulated that rocks and mountains were millions of years old, as James Hutton established in 1790 and Charles Lyell popularized in his Principles in Geology in 1830. A young geologist named Charles Darwin joined the crew of HMS Beagle the next year. In paleontology, meanwhile, a seaside resort proved to be a paradise for fossil hunters.

Lyme Regis sits at the western end of the “Jurassic Coast,” which stretches for nearly 100 miles along the cliffs of the English Channel. About 200 million years ago, fish, ammonites and belemnites, reptiles and aquatic dinosaurs swam the shallow seas at the edge of the supercontinent Pangaea. The cliffs above Lyme Regis contain layers of mudstone and limestone that constantly erode, unearthing all types of fossils of these ancient marine creatures.

Mary Anning lived in Lyme her entire life. Among the paleontologists searching for fossils along the coast, she was the only woman and only member of the working class. Her father taught her to find fossils. After his early death, she used that skill to support her family by selling fossils to tourists on the beach.2 In 1811, Mary’s brother found the skull of the first ichthyosaur, which she carefully excavated for months. When their findings were published in 1813, neither Mary nor her brother were mentioned. Ten years later, Mary found the skeleton of a plesiosaur, an aquatic reptile with a tiny head and a neck of more than 30 (!) vertebrae, almost as long as the rest of its body. Again, she was not mentioned in the original publication.

Nevertheless, Mary Anning’s fame grew. She opened a small fossil shop with her mother and corresponded regularly with experts in the field. Her description of “bezoar stones” helped famous paleontologist Rev. William Buckland identify them as fossilized feces. She found the first pterodactyl in Britain—a winged reptile previously discovered in Germany—and in 1829 she discovered an animal with ray-like characteristics, Squaloraja polyspondyla. By the 1830s, her fame has spread across Europe.

Mary was raised Congregationalist and later converted to Anglicanism. The notes she made during the 1840s speak of her grief following the death of her mother, but Mary drew profound comfort from her faith. Like other experts in her field, including many clergymen, Mary Anning knew the Earth was millions of years old. But this deeply religious scientist found no difficulties integrating her fossils with her faith. In 1850, the local parish honored Mary with a window in the church. They dedicated it “in commemoration of her usefulness in furthering the science of geology, as also of her benevolence of heart and integrity of life.”

watercolor painting of many prehistoric creatures in water and the sky

“Duria Antiquior, A more Ancient Dorset” is a watercolour painted in 1830 by the geologist Henry De la Beche based on fossils found by Mary Anning, and was the first pictorial representation of a scene from deep time based on fossil evidence.

Mary Buckland

Mary Morland Buckland was surrounded by geology from childhood. She became a talented illustrator for her husband, Rev. William Buckland, and many other paleontologists. Later in life, she was curator for fossils at the museum in Oxford.

On top of raising and educating nine children, Mary proved invaluable to her husband’s work. She provided motivation, arguments, illustrations, and may have written part of his contribution to The Bridgewater Treatise, an eight-volume work that explored William Paley’s design argument for God’s existence. Buckland’s book, Geology and Mineralogy considered with reference to Natural Theology, ended on this hopeful note: “Geology has shared the fate of other infant sciences, in being for a while considered hostile to revealed religion; so like them, when fully understood, it will be found a potent and consistent auxiliary to it, exalting our conviction of the Power, and Wisdom, and Goodness of the Creator.”

Although she collaborated closely with her husband, Mary developed her own scientific interests toward the end of her life. In the fields of marine biology and microscopy, she found the perfect blend for her artistic and scientific abilities. She continued to work at her microscope until the day before she died.

Charlotte Murchison

In 1825, Charlotte Murchison visited Lyme with her husband, Roderick, and decided to stay a few weeks. She intended to learn to find fossils “by working with the celebrated Mary Anning of that place.” It was a fateful decision, as Charlotte and Mary became lifelong friends. Through Charlotte’s influence, Roderick discovered that there was life beyond fox hunting.

Roderick became a leading geologist specializing in the Silurian strata, which is roughly 200 million years older than the rocks in Lyme Regis. Charlotte travelled extensively with her husband, although a malaria infection impaired her strength. Her fossil collection was studied and reproduced by Buckland and James de Carle Sowerby in their books, and her persistence convinced Charles Lyell to allow female students in his university lectures.

Her views on Genesis and creation were similar to those of her husband, who argued in his 1839 book The Silurian System that the “early Palaeozoic rocks contained evidence that life had a beginning and that vertebrates and land plants had been created long after the major invertebrate groups.” He described this process in some of his letters as “successive creation.” Murchison ended his book by saying “that the earth can alone have been made into a suitable place for man by the order of INFINITE WISDOM.”

Harmony in Science and Faith

Sometime in 1833, Mary Anning was visited by a tourist, the Rev. Henry Rawlins, and his 6-year-old son, Frank. Anning described to young Frank how she found the fossils that his father had just purchased. Since she found them at different levels in the cliffs, the creatures possibly had lived at different times. According to Frank’s journals, his father refused to discuss the issue after they left Anning’s home.

Some modern authors telling this story go on to ask whether this incident has cast doubts on Anning’s faith. It hasn’t. Harmonizing science and faith might have been difficult for those who were illiterate in geology and paleontology, but not for these women, who knew Jesus and understood the sciences.

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About the author


Berta M. Moritz

Berta M. Moritz has a Ph.D. in Zoology/Biochemistry from the University of Graz, Austria. She worked in pharmaceutical drug R&D in both, industry and academia, and is currently focusing on drug and patient safety. She is a member of the Society of Catholic Scientists. She is particularly interested in the interaction between science and faith, and therefore started in 2012 the Facebook page “Science meets Faith” and since 2016 has a blog with the same name. She has been involved in projects of continuing education, specifically for women of different cultural backgrounds. She loves exploring nature, discovering museums, and reading books.