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The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World (MacSci) Hardcover – October 13, 2009

4.1 out of 5 stars 32 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“Emling writes with a style that makes The Fossil Hunter very hard to put down before reaching the last page.” ―Winnepeg Free Press

“Readable, journalistic, Emling's amply footnoted book skillfully puts Anning's work into the scientific and sociological context.” ―The New York Times

“Released just weeks after Tracy Chevalier's fictional account of Anning's life, Emling's account pays tribute to Anning in an original and gripping historical biography.” ―Financial Times

“Dinosaurs are astonishing today -- and we've had several hundred years of biology to help us absorb the shock. Imagine the shock caused by these monster creatures discovered and presented by a poor, twelve-year old girl, in the early 19th century. This is the remarkable story that Emling tells so well, evoking a world far from ours that in just a few years took a destitute pre-teen scavenging the crumbling cliffs of Lyme Regis to the pages of the leading scientific journals of her time.” ―Peter Galison, author of Einstein's Clock's and Poincare's Maps and Joseph Pellegrino University Professor, Harvard University

“Shelley Emling vividly brings to life the fascinating story of Mary Anning, the greatest fossil hunter of the early nineteenth century. Anning single-handedly recovered an extraordinary collection of fossils of marine and flying reptiles that helped shape the way we now see the incredibly long history of life on Earth. With this enjoyable book, Emling gives Anning her deserved place in history.” ―Hans Sues, Associate Director of Research and Collections, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution

The Fossil Hunter at long last brings to life one of the central figures in the early golden age of paleontological discovery -- a woman of great diligence, and passion, and with a keen eye for fossil bone in the rock. As a young child, I was greatly inspired by Mary Anning. As an adult, working paleontologist, I remain so, a conviction doubtless reinforced by Shelley Emling's fascinating book.” ―Michael Novacek, Provost, American Museum of Natural History

“Emling does an excellent job of knitting together a highly readable title on her life, reaching into sources for Anning's contemporaries and scientific publications from the time which describes the fossils she found. It is rare that readers discover someone like them who changed the world. That's Mary Anning however, and as Shelley Emling shows, it wasn't easy. But she did it anyway and now, at last, we can appreciate how.” ―Bookslut

“Emling tells a fascinating tale. . . she marshals an immense amount of information about the world of 19th-century geology and paleontology, detailing the controversies about the meaning of the layers of rock and the increasing evidence that animals can indeed become extinct. . . Valuable because it trains a well-deserved spotlight on Anning, explicates some of the philosophical dilemmas of 19th-century science, and incidentally, also notes several other women who became expert fossil hunters and collectors.” ―The Washington Times

“A well-written book is one of the most effective, and enjoyable, ways to become acquainted with the women who made such gains in history, but have yet to be fully recognized for their significant contributions. Shelley Emling has written such a book.” ―National Women's History Project

“We know so much because of Mary Anning, but as Emling makes clear, we sadly know very little about Mary Anning, something the author does a wonderful job of changing here.” ―Bookslut

“In this breezy biography...the unlikely life story of uneducated, lower-class girl turned respected 19th-century paleontologist Mary Anning is, in Emling's hands, an inspiring one.” ―Bust

About the Author

Shelley Emling has been a journalist for twenty years. She is a foreign correspondent for Cox Newspapers, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, Fortune, USA Today, and The International Herald Tribune. She lives in London.


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Product Details

  • Series: MacSci
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press; First Edition edition (October 13, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0230611567
  • ISBN-13: 978-0230611566
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 0.9 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,364,482 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Russell Cashman on November 26, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The main strength of this book is as a biography. There have been other books by people like Martin Rudwick (Worlds Before Adam) and Christopher McGowan (The Dragon Seekers) that have discussed some of Mary Anning's contributions to the historical development of paleontology and geology, but this book is a true biography that describes her life, both her inner life and her interactions with her community, which in her case was really two separate communities, the community of wealthy and well educated gentleman geologists with whom she worked, and the community of the poor working class people of Lyme Regis in which she and her family lived. The book does a particularly good job of describing how social and economic changes (and even natural disasters) in early 19th century Britain affected peoples lives in a place like Lyme Regis. It also inevitably touches on issues of gender and class in the scientific community of the early 19th century and English society in general. The author also attempts to put Anning's work into context with regard to the major intellectual developments in the fields of paleontology and geology during the first half of the 19th century and for the most part is successful in doing so. However, there are a few jarring discrepancies like when she implies that Charles Lyell never accepted evolution, when in fact by the 1860s he did, even if continued to doubt (as did Alfred Russel Wallace) that all aspects of the human mind could have been produced by a purely material process like natural selection, which is a big part of why I gave this book 4 stars instead of 5.Read more ›
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
"The Fossil Hunter" tells the story of Mary Anning, who discovered the first icthyosaur skeleton and went on to establish, by her efforts, the "science" of fossil hunting. The author tells what is known about Mary, setting the story in the historical events of the times, which occur right at the start of the Industrial Revolution. I enjoyed the story and spent several nights reading it until I was done, it was so interesting. I had previously read "Remarkable Creatures," by Tracy Chevalier (and purchased from Amazon), which was a fictionalized account of Mary and her friendship with the Philpots, so I was eager to learn more. I believe I did learn more from this book--HOWEVER...the book is heavily biased by the author's opinions and conjectures on how Mary (and other characters in the book) thought and felt and on "what Mary might have done." I would say that at least 50 percent of this book is fiction (that is, what the author thought happened, and what is not recorded in history). The author "filled in the blanks" A LOT--not very fair in a supposed non-fiction book. In addition, it was uncomfortable to read the author's thinly veiled mockery of Christianity and religion, as well as her slight contempt for the innocent thinking of pre-Victorian times. Many times it read like a "rag" piece, and indeed, the author does have a journalism background, so perhaps that explains it. If not for the bias throughout the book, I would have given it 5 stars. If you can ignore the bias and read for the history--and Mary Anning's story is a wonderful one--you will enjoy this book.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I recently read Tracy Chevalier's newest book Remarkable Creatures, the story of Mary Anning, a woman I had never heard of but is getting the attention she so richly deserved. I enjoyed Remarkable Creatures so much I was very happy to learn of this biography of her life. For anyone who doesn't normally like nonfiction I would recommend this book, it is written in a very accessible style and the story is so astonishing it reads like fiction. Emling has written a book that I found easy to read and hard to put down.

Mary Anning was born in 1799 and lived in the Lyme Regis area of England her entire life; she learned to fossil hunt as a small child, at that time a fossil was anything dug out of the ground, most of Mary's fossils finds were ammonites. Living on the very edge of poverty and barely literate she became one of the most renowned paleontologists of her time. At the age of 11 she found the first entire fossil skeleton of an ichthyosaur; a fossil that is still on display in the Natural History Museum in London. This find was the first step in the eventual theory of evolution by Darwin, who used Mary's finds and works extensively in his Origin of the Species.

The fact that Mary found this one specimen would be pretty astonishing, but she also discovered the first complete plesiosaurus, the first pterosaur (pterodactyl), a new fossil fish (Squaloraja), along with many other smaller finds. With all this she is barely known today and was often overlooked or not credited during her lifetime - most likely because she was a woman and the scientific community at that time was male dominated. Although she had many well known friends in the geological world during her lifetime she was never accorded the accolades, respect or monetary earnings these men achieved.
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