Issue No. 43

September 2014

"She Sells Sea Shells on the Seashore"


Mary Anning finally got her due in 2010.

It was then that The Royal Society of London named her as one of the most important British women in the history of science.

It only took the Royal Society 173 years to reach that conclusion about the first woman paleontologist.

Mary Anning was only 22 years old when she made a discovery that would change the way scientists thought about the concept of extinction and life on earth Growing up in the fossil rich region of Southwestern England, Mary would often go out with her parents and brother in search of fossils that they might sell to tourists in their seashore community as a way of supplementing their family's meager income. Their little neighborhood is, today, a World Heritage Site and sports seaside cliffs that expose over 185 million years of earth history.

As an experienced fossil collector, even at her early age, Mary knew what to look for as she scoured the Lyme Regis cliffs. One day, she came across a sleek and circular object poking through the mud and stone of the Cliffs. She stopped and began to carefully scrape away the rock that surrounded it. Over the next several hours and into the next day, Mary stood on the beach,

with waves lapping at her heels, chiseling away at the object in the shale formation that comprised the Cliff.

Soon her find was revealing itself and it was amazing. Mary had discovered a completely intact, never before seen sea reptile, over 9 feet long and 6 feet wide with a small skull, long neck and strange paddles along its body. Scientists in Mary's day had speculated about a possible sea creature of this type given other finds, but her discovery confirmed it. The specie which dated back to the Jurassic Period, was officially named Plesiosaurus.

Anning's finding helped confirm the concept of extinction. Until that time, scientists, ruled by religious doctrine assumed that God's perfection would prohibit the extinction of a species. They speculated that dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures must live in a yet undiscovered part of the world. Her Plesiosaurus unearthing was so unlike any other found sea creature that its finding contributed to the recognition that species can and do become extinct.

Mary had good success at her chosen profession of fossil collecting. At times she was able to make a living what she found. She studied as much scientific literature as she could but unfortunately her scientific wisdom went untapped outside of her small circle of family and friends. Geologists of the time would talk with her about her findings and would then write up their scientific findings without ever mentioning her or her contributions. Despite her inability to overcome the social restrictions placed on her due to her gender and social status she persisted in her study and research on the fossils she found and her renown grew.

Scientists interested in geology and the yet unnamed field of paleontology paid her visits. Several of them befriended her and would frequently come to Lyme to go out on collection trips. She was able to publish one professional article over her lifetime which disputed the findings of a fellow geologist. One of her visitors, Charles Lyell, was a professor of Geology at The University of Cambridge and would come to be an important teacher for Charles Darwin. Over time, many of her colleagues recognized her contribution and later in her life she received a lifetime annuity from the British Society.

An additional contemporary honor was bestowed on her on May 21, 2014, her 215th birthday, when Google honored her with a masthead doodle.

But Mary Anning was eventually memorialized in 1908 by British songwriter, Terry Sullivan. His tongue twister, "She sold sea shells on the sea shore", still uttered today by most English speakers by the age of 10, recalls just a small part of Mary's work. Her true genius was in recognizing what was around her, finding out as much as she could about it, and then making it available to the rest of the world.



Tired of hearing your colleague tell you that your presentation the other day was "awesome"? Jill Shargaa is helping to put the "awe" back in the word. Her comedic Ted Talk was not awesome but it was entertaining.


Upcoming Events


  • I'll be conducting a workshop with my colleague Michael Couch at the Bayer Center for Non-Profit Management next month. Information is below.

Who is Taking Over? Developing Your Next Generation of Leaders

Tuesday, Oct. 7 from 9 a.m. noon

Many nonprofits are facing a change of guard in leadership. In addition, the demands placed on nonprofit leadership are ever changing. What assurances exist that the next crop of leaders will be ready to assume the ranks of responsibility in growing your nonprofit toward the fulfillment of your mission?

This workshop will provide a systematic process to identify the key elements of what makes a great leader for your nonprofit, where leaders come from within the organization and how to best develop them so they will have the skills and competencies to assume the role when their day arrives.

To register and to read about all the classes at the BCNM, click here

  • I'm honored to be participating with this year's Leadership Pittsburgh Class XXXI. As I've been doing for the past 5 years, a select number of participants of the class will have the opportunity to sign up for executive coaching sessions with me. In these sessions, we use a strengths based approach to help them address a critical workplace issue. The LP group is always an amazing group of professionals. For more information on Leadership Pittsburgh, click here.